Oct. 5 2010 12:00 AM

Gurt, Lansing Symphony roll out Russian revelry

The Russians have a proverb: The only tool you really need
is an ax.

Michael Gurt, a brilliant pianist with a bearish frame,
untucked shirt and savage glee in his eyes, kicked through classical decorum to
hew, hack and finesse his way through Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto Friday night
with maestro Timothy Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony.

Muffitt and Gurt may as well have kissed each other on both
cheeks, tore their shirts off and tussled like two brawny muzhiks (Russian
peasants). They’ve known each other for decades and didn’t seem inclined to
coddle each other.

Gurt brought out all the glorious extremes of this
schizophrenic music, moving with ease from knife-throwing fury to ballroom
niceties and back again. While pounding out a whirling-dervish theme in the
first movement, he suddenly slowed down as if tiptoeing through the Russian Tea
Room, then slipped out the back door into the alley, where the pounding

In the slow movement, he embroidered the most delicate
melodies with grace and clarity. You really can do anything with an ax.

By the end, Gurt and Muffitt seemed high on their third
vodka, er, movement, together, shooting big grins at each other. When Gurt had
to repeat a cutesy “dink-dink-dink” passage three times, he smiled at the
audience and made a little fairy-dance arm gesture, as if to say, “Silly, but
fun, eh?” Then out came the broadaxe again for a final, ferocious volley.

When the concerto was over, the Wharton crowd shot up as if
they had been sitting on bees. It was the quickest and warmest ovation I’ve
seen for a soloist in years. Nobody calmed down until Gurt agreed to an encore
— the jingly, ragtime rave-up “The Banjo” by Louis Marie Gottschalk.

It’s no wonder Muffitt programmed the evening’s major
statement, the Sibelius Fifth, before the intermission. A cynic might conclude
that Muffitt was worried about losing half the audience if he served
Tchaikovsky first. In hindsight, I understand that nothing could have followed
the Tchaikovsky concerto’s cathartic fun, least of all so serious a slab of

Muffitt is deeply committed to Sibelius, and every bar of
Friday’s performance glowed with his passion for the music.

It began as a cinematic flight skirting the Scandinavian
treeline, with huge foothill-to-peak chords and sudden swoops into the crags
and lonely pines. No detail in the panorama was lost, from glittery stray
snowflakes to dark outcrops of rock amid the snows below. After such a spacious
and meandering flight pattern, the sudden acceleration to climax in the first
movement hit the hall with the G-force of re-entry from space. It was one of
the most powerful moments the symphony has delivered in recent years.

Muffitt and the orchestra sustained the grandeur and majesty
all the way through the symphony’s strange, in-and-out final chords. Have you
ever tried to order a burger through a broken speaker at a drive-up window?
“Eyes with that, sir?” The ending of the Fifth uses similar interrupted sounds,
as a deliberate technique, albeit with grander ends in mind. Sibelius — no,
make that God — is cupping his hands over your ears, taking them away for a
split second at a time, because your head would explode if you heard the final
chords at full force.

It must be tempting to rush such a tricky ending to keep the
audience on the hook (and stop them from clapping in the mistaken belief the
symphony is over.) But that’s not Muffitt’s style. If anything, he opened up
the pauses to full fjord-flows-into-ocean breadth, but the maestro’s control
and momentum was so deeply rooted nobody dared applaud until the symphony was
really over.

If Tchaikovsky and Sibelius were painted in rich orchestral
colors, the evening’s opener, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by
Thomas Tallis,” was etched in black and white — strings alone, deployed in a
three-tiered array of large ensemble, medium ensemble and four soloists.

Let’s face it — like that dumb old song “Get Happy,” bubbly
overtures can tire you out. This was a much more satisfying way to begin a
concert. Beginning from a mere glimmer in the violins, a medieval melody passed
through a dark prism of 20th-century harmonies and variations, as if
echoing through long catacombs and deep caverns. The feeling of depth was
uncanny; the transitions among sections and soloists were delicate as a

The strings, for many years the Lansing Symphony’s shakiest
pillar, came through at every level, achieving organ-like sonorities that
throbbed through the hall with overwhelming power.