March 31 2010 12:00 AM

Violinist Schmidt connects with LSO in rare communion


Orchestral musicians will hop on a sagging warhorse if ordered, but in their hearts, they long for a Harley, or at least a hang glider. Like the rest of us, they prefer to feel alive and don’t mind a good excuse to hold each other tight.

Saturday night, 27-year-old violinist Giora Schmidt teamed with the Lansing Symphony and maestro Tim Muffitt for the closest and most electrifying collaboration between orchestra and soloist since Muffitt came to town four years ago.

The vehicle for this rare communion was American Samuel Barber’s 1939 Violin Concerto. It’s music from a time of hope and dread much like ours. Barber’s mix of unabashed yearning and modern turbulence perfectly suited Muffitt, Schmidt and Lansing’s young orchestra. Faultless precision and balance were only the top layers in a delicate tissue of miracles.

No listener expects to catch every single note, from first to last, from an un-amplified soloist in the middle of an orchestral storm, but Schmidt made himself heard without visibly projecting, let alone showing off.

While clearly a virtuoso, Schmidt kept zero distance from the audience. He was deep in the moment, and wanted everybody else there with him. The rapport he had with Muffitt was riveting to watch. They stood opposite one another, mirror-like, ceding and taking control in a constant series of subtle negotiations.

After a spacious opening and probing slow movement, the concerto’s finale came as a shock. Suddenly, a relentless run of 16th notes whipped by like stripes on the Autobahn. Not only did Schmidt nail them all without breaking a sweat, he made the whole sprint seem as natural as a flying dream. Before long, Schmidt, Muffitt and the orchestra fell into a delirious feedback loop that began to smack of large-scale group sex.

Before the final bars, Schmidt got a brief break, but the orchestra kept on swooping like a flock of kamikaze hummingbirds, drawing a huge grin from the soloist. Then Schmidt called that bet and dove into the ruckus with redoubled gusto. His unstudied little jump just before the last note was the perfect flourish for a mental, spiritual and athletic tour de force.

Usually, when a big orchestral piece is over, four or five enthusiasts sprout up and shame everybody else in the hall into hauling themselves begrudgingly to their feet. Not Saturday. As soon as Schmidt’s bow reached final apogee, 2,000 bodies shot up reflexively, like so many knees hit by a doctor’s hammer. Nice to know the collective body is healthy.

The rest of Saturday’s program couldn’t match that kind of drama, but there were splendid moments.

For starters, Muffitt eschewed the usual rave-up overture for Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances,” a wistful evocation of 18th-century candles-and-powdered-wig days, complete with a spidery harpsichord skittering in and out of the furniture. From Note 1, there was no hint of warming up or throat-clearing. The music was just there, like morning mist when you look out of the window.

Principal oboist Jan Eberle was the night’s MVP, hands down. Her plaintive tone wove a gold thread into the gauzy Respighi suite, then sang at length from the tender core of the Barber concerto, making her almost a co-soloist with Schmidt.

After the Barber, Muffitt and crew boarded a hulking Romantic-era vessel, Robert Shumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. A fearless phalanx of four horns led the bombastic, flag-waving sendoff. Then came a lot of spray and surge, relieved by a dance-like movement hinting at decorous dancing on the deck. It sounded great, if a bit Germanic and pompous at first.

During the becalmed slow movement, the moonlit sea brought forth deeper thoughts and the music got under my skin. Muffitt slowed the tempo to brooding speed. Cupping his hands like a sculptor, he molded the softness and loudness with such care that the swells and currents surged through my guts and Schumann’s ponderous Germanic cruise began to feel like a slow ride on a blue whale.