May 17 2010 12:00 AM

Muffitt happy to stay on Lansing Symphony podium for three more years

It’s hard to hold a high note, but the Lansing Symphony is
about to try. With attendance spiking improbably upward and performance levels
at a widely recognized high, the organization announced last week that maestro
Tim Muffitt has signed a new three-year contract.

The deal will keep Muffitt’s shoes on the podium through the
2012-2013 season, but no glue was needed. The maestro said the decision was a
“no-brainer” for several reasons, some of them personal.

On a weekday afternoon, you might run into Muffitt
shepherding his kids — Vincent, 13, and Clara, 10 — into the East Lansing
Library, or spot them frolicking in a park or nature trail in the area.

“My children are thriving in the great schools here,” he
said. “It’s a fabulous place to raise kids. They love it here. I’m happy to be
here for their benefit, and I’m happy to be here as an artist.”

Muffitt spends about three-fourths of his time in East
Lansing and about one week a month in Baton Rouge, La., where he is music director
of the Baton Rouge Symphony.

In a dark time for arts organizations, the Lansing Symphony
is floating in a weird bubble of success. Single ticket sales for the 2009-2010
season, which ended last month, were up 31 percent from the last season, while
subscription sales went up 3 percent, according to executive director Courtney
Millbrook. Since Muffitt started as music director in fall 2006, ticket sales
have gone up 50 percent.

muffitt2big.jpg“We’re bucking the national trend by huge degrees,” Muffitt
said. “We have seen remarkable response from the audience.”

Paid attendance at classical music events in the United
States declined 8 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to a December 2009 report
released by the League of American Orchestras.

Muffitt deflected the credit. “This is clearly a community
that values the arts and takes great pride in its hometown organizations, and
they show it.”

The maestro singled out Courtney Millbrook, now finishing
her first season as the symphony’s general manager, as a major new asset and
another reason he decided to stay.

“I feel like with every passing day, we are coming more in
focus as an organization,” Muffitt said.

Muffitt’s paean to the musicians was even more effusive.

“I love the musicians of the Lansing Symphony and look
forward to every minute we spend together,” he said.

For their part, the orchestra’s musicians voted last month
to extend their labor agreement with the symphony for another year.

After only four years as maestro, Muffitt has already been
drafted into service as the face of Lansing. In a promotional film
produced last fall by the Lansing Economic Development Corporation, a series of
local artists are asked whether there is art, ballet and drama in the capitol
city. They all show their stuff and answer, “Yes, in Lansing.” At the end of
the film, a question appears on the screen: “But is there passion?” Muffitt
brings down the hammer with a fierce scowl, as the symphony bangs out the final
chords to “Mars” from “The Planets.” The rest is silence.

Millbrook joked that after seeing the film, people are
surprised at how laid back Muffitt is.

“He knows how to make this music, this experience, down to
earth and enjoyable, still with this amazing artistic quality,” Millbrook said.

Beginning in March, Muffitt is applying this skill to his
latest mania: Facebook. He’s embracing his new platform with the zeal of the
late convert.

“It’s forcing me to reach into the cobwebs of my brain and
think about things I haven’t considered since grad school,” he said.

Muffitt’s thoughtful posts connect a lot of musical dots,
from Sting’s CD of Renaissance lute music to Verdi’s operas, New Orleans jazz
and the call of the wood thrush.

“I’m having so much fun,” he said. “My target is to come up
with one little tidbit a day that will spur some curiosity.”

Before last Tuesday’s season closer, Muffitt invited the
audience to a lobby party marking the symphony’s 80th year and stuck
around to bask in the glow.

“Whether it’s speaking to school groups or the Rotary Club
or what have you, he’s engaged in the community,” Millbrook said. “He doesn’t
go off stage and duck out the back door.”

The lobby hang followed a thunderous standing ovation from a
full house, freshly rocked by Beethoven’s Fifth. Millbrook said fans and
musicians came up to her all night to tell her how great things were going.

“It’s a great time,” Millbrook said. “It’s a thrill to have
him commit to another three years.”

Muffitt expects to be around longer than that. He has
already planned out the next eight years of repertoire for the Lansing

“That’s how you need to think as a music director,” he said. “In
order to put a truly balanced offering out there, you’ve got to take the bird’s-eye

For Muffitt, the symphony’s success ties in with a general
buzz about culture in Lansing that includes downtown economic development,
MSU’s new Broad Art Museum, burgeoning music festivals and more.

“Why shouldn’t it happen here?” he asked. “We have terrific
schools, a spectacular natural environment and an educated and curious
populace. Those are three really strong ingredients for a thriving community.”

But one piece has yet to fall into place.

Before Muffitt leaves the scene, he’d like to see a
long-awaited downtown performing arts center built.

“The Wharton Center is a great place to do concerts, but I
do feel that our state capitol needs a concert hall downtown,” he said. “It’s a
real investment in our future. Our job is to bring people into the state, to
attract new businesses to Michigan, and quality of life issues are the things
that will do that.”