Sept. 8 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing Symphony starts 2010-11 season with lead-off triple

Orchestras resort to all sorts of gimmicks nowadays, but the Lansing Symphony’s season opener tops all: a soloist with three heads.

Why not? It takes a freak to play one, and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is a musical anomaly. It’s a trio within a concerto, a whisper wrapped in a roar, chamber-style tea and toast inside an orchestral ox roast.

Beethoven’s bizarre beast is often abused as an excuse to park three big stars onto the same stage and raise a few million bucks for some cause or other. Maestro Tim Muffitt has taken a more sensitive tack.

Muffitt describes the Trio Terzetto, a piano-violin-cello unit featuring Okemos native and Cleveland Orchestra cellist Tanya Ell, as a “soloist” — singular.

“They come not as three individuals, but as one organism,” Muffitt said.

How singular?

Never mind Beethoven. Let your imagination go. Picture Ell, pianist Renana Gutman and violinist Diana Cohen frolicking together on a beach, in gauzy slow motion. No kidding — they are that close.

“We’re really lucky we get along so well personally,” Ell said.

On tour in their four years together, the three musicians have hiked together in rugged Banff and the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Recently they played the Saugatuck Music Festival on Lake Michigan.

“It’s not just rehearsing and performing. We enjoy whatever places we’re in together and explore them,” Ell said. “We could take really long walks along the water and go swimming, and we like to cook together.”

Do they huddle over the campfire, giggling over a tricky cadence from Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio?

“We definitely talk shop, but not just that,” Ell said. “We know each other very, very well.”

Four years ago, Trio Terzetto’s first concert was meant as a one-off, but they hit it off big, musically and personally.

Ell described Gutman, an internationally acclaimed pianist based in London, as a “very thoughtful, deep musician.”

“I remember the first time I heard her play, she has what I would call a luminescent sound,” Ell said. “She’s always thinking how to pull more out, how to be more convincing.”

While playing, Ell often sings a melody inwardly, searching for the right sound. Gutman has a knack for reading the cellist’s mind and helping her bring the ideal to physical life.

Cohen, concertmaster of the Kalamazoo Symphony since September 2007, is just as rewarding to work with, Ell said.

“We see from each other’s perspectives,” she said. “That’s the best thing about chamber music.”

In 2007, Ell became the youngest cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra, often numbered among the five or six best orchestras in the world.

She often steps out and plays chamber music with her Cleveland colleagues, just for kicks. But Ell treasures the Trio Terzetto as a musical thread “completely outside of that,” she said.

“It’s given me the chance to be in a group where you get to know each other’s playing and music-making ideas over years,” she said.

“You can’t get that experience when you just play a concert here and there.”

A hiker, runner and overall savorer of life, Ell has never been keen to huddle in a practice room all week.

times, while on tour in Europe with the Cleveland legions this summer,
she found herself in that delicious fold of time when her cello has been
shipped to the next city. Oh dear, what to do?

be in a city like Milano, Italy, one of the most beautiful places on
Earth,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to practice, so I’d have to go
hiking. I’d just have a day with friends, with the most incredible views
and food.”

She said it all goes into the furnace of creativity.

kind of joy can only transfer itself over to when you have to play
something like the second theme in the first movement of the Beethoven,”
she said. “It translates directly, in my mind.”

in an orchestra can be dull and regimented, but Ell said she loves her
wellrounded life, fellow musicians and the supportive Cleveland

“I don’t think I could have possibly dreamed what this would be like,” she said. “I feel very lucky.”

Can you keep the cellist in Okemos after she’s seen Milano? You can if there’s a plum gig like Beethoven’s Triple Concerto.

Ell’s father, cellist Eva Ell and clarinetist Frank Ell, are longtime Lansing Symphony players, now retired.

feel I’ve grown up listening to the Lansing Symphony,” she said. Tanya
Ell played with the Lansing Symphony for a year under former music
director Gustav Meier, but she hasn’t worked with Muffitt yet.

“He’s brought wonderful new energy to the orchestra and has quite a following in the community,” she said.

Muffitt said he’ll handle Ell and the trio just as he would a soloist with one head.

know when they come to us that they will have a unified approach to the
piece already established,” he said. “Then it’s just a matter of lining
up their vision with the orchestra’s.”

made it sound even easier than that. “We just have to rely on all our
previous concerto experiences and add some chamber music to it,” she
said. “We’ve all played with orchestras a lot, so we’ll have the added
pleasure of being on stage with each other.”

concert closes with the magisterial Second Symphony of Johannes Brahms.
It opens with a fiery, fizzy overture by a one-hit wonder, Emil von

“It used to be very popular in the concert hall, for good reason, and I’m gonna bring it back,” Muffitt said.

in the mood to make pronouncements, Muffitt added one more. Despite
general jitters raised by last week’s musicians’ strike at the Detroit
Symphony, Muffitt said, the Lansing Symphony is fiscally healthy.

maestro said the symphony’s books are balanced going into September,
and everybody on stage — Muffitt and the musicians — has signed
contracts for the coming season. There was no comment on how the
symphony planned to pay this week’s guest “organism.”

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

With Trio Terzetto 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10. Cobb Great Hall, Wharton Center. $12-45. (517) 487-5001