May 19 2010 12:00 AM

Muffitt happy to stay on LSO podium

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 Timothy 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.

“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 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, a series of local artists are asked whether there is art, ballet and drama in the capital 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.

In March, Muffitt began 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.”

Although he’s extended his contract for three years, Muffitt expects to be around longer than that. He has already planned out the next eight years of repertoire for the Lansing Symphony.

“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 view.”