Sept. 29 2010 12:00 AM

Pianist Gurt rides Russian rapids with the Lansing Symphony

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 29 — Whung, whang, whing!

Most people know the Tchaikovsky piano concerto by its
opening chords, head-banged by a straitjacketed Terry Jones in Monty Python’s
informative “Farming Club Presents the Life of Tchaikovsky.”

The music merits a deeper acquaintance.

Pianist Michael Gurt, an eccentric professor with a droll
wit of his own, puts it “among the most underplayed of the overplayed

He sounds like the right man to dive into a roiling Russian
river with the Lansing Symphony Friday, Oct. 1.

Gurt’s favorite writers are extremist Russians like
Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who stuffed their books with tempestuous scenes,
characters and emotions.

“Man, they went all the way,” Gurt said. “Tchaikovsky, too.
He didn’t do anything by halves.”

Maestro Timothy Muffitt, who has known Gurt since the 1970s,
called him a “super-genius.”

A few years ago, Muffitt got a call from a panicky agent
begging him to recommend a pianist who could play the Brahms’ Second Concerto —
50 minutes of hurricane-force piano — on one day’s notice.

Gurt stepped in and played it from memory.

“I have learned a lot about music from Michael,” Muffitt
said. “I’ve never done the Tchaikovsky with him and I can’t wait. He’s really
going to tear it up.”

Gurt said he hasn’t played the concerto — “I haven’t even
thought about it” — for 10 years.

“I hear all sorts of things in it I never even imagined
before,” he said.

It’s often forgotten that the concerto comes from
Tchaikovsky’s young, “nationalist” phase, Gurt pointed out. That means more
Russian bear and less Viennese lapdog.

“It’s not possible to get anything more typically Russian,”
he said. “You can just imagine a real wild dance, with the vodka flowing
freely. I see all of that really clearly when I play the last movement.”

Muffitt lit up when he heard that.

“Excellent! Oh, this’ll be fun,” he said.

Gurt teaches at Louisiana State University, but he has
strong connections to Michigan.

Born in Brooklyn, he moved to Ypsilanti at 8 years old
when his father was hired as a professor at Eastern Michigan University.

“I think of myself as having come of age in Ann Arbor,” he

Gurt studied at University of Michigan during the glory days
of Ann Arbor’s UMS concert series. That meant a front row seat to piano gods
like Anton Rubinstein and Sviatoslav Richter.

“I got to hear almost everything my friend in New York got
to hear, but I also could find a place to park my car,” he said.

“It was a great place to grow up. I didn’t realize quite how
great until I left the place to go to graduate school at Juilliard.”

Gurt was on the search committee that hired Muffitt as
conductor of the LSU Symphony in the late 1970s.

“He was such a good hire the University of Texas at Austin
bought him out from under us,” Gurt said.

He’s not surprised at Muffitt’s subsequent success.

“I would have put money on him even in the early days,” he

Last year, Gurt opened Baton Rouge Symphony season playing
Gershwin with Muffitt. Conductors have to dial it down to let some soloists
shine, but Gurt has a “bring it on” attitude toward Muffitt’s power on the podium.

“For the performance to happen, the conductor really has to
hold up his own end,” Gurt said. “He can’t just follow the soloist. Tim is
great at holding up his end.”

Muffitt’s other end Friday consists of poling the orchestra
through a spacious panorama of Nordic majesty, the Fifth Symphony of Finnish
master Jean Sibelius.

“It’s an adventure, an unfolding,” Muffitt said. “It’s not
without structure, but there’s a sense of an ever-changing journey.”

Sibelius and Tchaikovsky will both carry a lot of weight,
but there’s nothing light about Friday’s program. The opener, by 20th-century
British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, will show a side of the symphony
Muffitt hasn’t explored before.

In a moving tribute from one century to another, Williams’
“Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis” runs a gorgeous set of variations on a
theme written by a Tallis, a medieval master.

Because it’s scored only for strings, Muffitt waited until
his fifth year as Lansing’s maestro to do it.

“I feel like our string section has come together in a
beautiful way over the last few years,” Muffitt said.

It’s a tricky bit of exposure that would have been
unthinkable in Lansing 10 years ago. The score calls for the orchestra to break
into three choirs of strings, from intimate to massive in scale, molding the
spare medieval melody into three-dimensional relief. If sounded properly, the
melody seems to reverberate into eternity.