It seems rude to rush past Johannes Brahms’ sun-kissed, billowing Symphony No. 2, the centerpiece of Friday’s Lansing Symphony Orchestra season, but there’s just too much going on in Friday’s season closer to linger on it.
Let the prospect of a leisurely, Brahmsian immersion in harmonic nectar and melodic winds, ideally suited for spring healing and renewal, waft along on its own reputation while we stampede to more urgent wonders.
Friday’s concert features the world premiere of a new, space-themed work by LSO composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin and the dynamism of 2022 Gilmore Young Artist Clayton Stephenson, who will play a gorgeous piano concerto by African-American composer Florence Price.
Kalamazoo’s biennial Gilmore Piano Festival named Stephenson a 2022 Gilmore Young Artist this spring, along with Indonesia-born Janice Carissa, a student at the Curtis Institute of Music.
The award is a career boost and cash bonanza for a young artist, but it also comes with performing and outreach obligations, including a live gig with the Lansing Symphony.
Lansing may have snared Stephenson just before his rocket really goes off. In early June, he is headed to Fort Worth, Texas to face off with pianists from Russia, Japan, China, Ukraine, South Korea and around the world at the ultra-prestigious Cliburn Competition.
Even though he’s navigating two colossal career milestones in the course of a few weeks, Stephenson, 23, sounded overjoyed to bring the Concerto in One Movement by pioneering African-American composer Florence Price to Lansing.
The concerto starts with a grand, romantic sweep in the velvet-steamroller style of Tchaikovsky or Dvorák, but Stephenson is especially fond of the intimate sequence that follows.
“There’s a feeling of gospel music, the call and responses that are happening,” Stephenson said. “It starts with the oboe only, you get to hear the piano interacting with the cello alone. It becomes almost like chamber music.”
Price was the first African-American woman to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, when the Chicago Symphony performed her Symphony in E Minor in 1933, but her work was seldom played until the 2000s.
“She is such an inspiration,” Stephenson said. “In spite of racism and discrimination, she was able to get her pieces performed.”
In 2009, a trove of her manuscripts was discovered in her former summer home outside Chicago, were published by E.C. Schirmer and many of them are belatedly entering the classical repertoire across the nation, and the world.
Stephenson grew up in a single-parent household in Brooklyn with few resources, but plenty of music playing in the house.
“I was a music appreciator before I was a musician,” he said. He didn’t have a piano until he found one in a dumpster behind an elementary school.
At 10, he went to pre-college at Juilliard under a program for underprivileged youth in the area. He’s now studying piano performance at the New England Conservatory — the same place where Florence Price studied — and working toward an economics degree at Harvard.
Stephenson is not into boundaries. His Gilmore recitals playfully tossed jazz and classical works together. He also loves hip-hop, country, heavy metal, alternative rock and anything else that “expresses emotion and experience.”
“I have this ritual before I play,” he said. “I watch a young Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5, singing ‘I’ll Be There.’ At such a young age, to be so musical, it just inspires me. It never gets old.”
The Price concerto, which premiered in 1934 in Chicago, fits an unusual middle spot between the other two works on Friday’s LSO concert.
“There’s old music everybody knows, and there’s new music that’s being created,” Stephenson said. “But this is both old and new, because our ears are fresh to it.”
Did somebody say “new music?” Seattle-born composer Patrick Harlin was appointed LSO composer-in-residence in fall 2019, just before the pandemic shut down public concerts for a year and a half. Despite the disruption, the orchestra has made sure Harlin’s accessible yet adventurous music is being heard, leading up to Friday’s world premiere.
Harlin’s music traces an upward trajectory, starting underground with “Rapture,” his first major piece, written as a master’s student. “River of Doubt,” a mesmerizing highlight of the Lansing Symphony’s first concert of 2022, evoked a torturous journey along the Amazon River. Harlin’s next major work, “The Art of Flight,” took to the air, and became the highlight of a virtual chamber concert by the LSO in February 2021.
“Earthrise,” Friday’s world premiere, ventures even higher.
“I wanted to capture, for me, what it’s like to look up at the moon and the stars, the cosmos, and what that would be if you were on a rocket, the turbulence, the ensuing lack of gravity, the floating sensation,” Harlin said.
In 2019, Japanese billionaire and fashion magnate Yusaku Maezawa announced that he would pay for eight select artists to accompany him on Elon Musk’s flight into lunar orbit, planned for 2023, and use the experience in their artistic projects.
A pandemic-idled Harlin applied for a slot. If selected, he proposed, he would write “a 21st-century soundtrack for space travel.”
“I don’t think I made it through the first screening rounds, but I still wanted to write it,” he said.
As composer-in-residence, Harlin has gotten to know Lansing’s players. To make up for the lost year of 2020-21, Harlin will stay on another year, write two more new pieces for the orchestra and continue an ongoing round of workshops and classes with local schools and performing arts groups such as All of the Above Hip-Hop Academy.
“I’m listening to the concerts, hearing players and their personalities and finding ways to put that in the music,” he said.
At an adventurous, sold-out April 7 new music concert at the Robin Theatre, he heard LSO principal oboist Stephanie Shapiro play her brains out in “Six Riffs After Ovid” by Ann Arbor composer Michael Daugherty.
“It was jaw-dropping,” Harlin said. “I had to write some solos for her in ‘Earthrise.’”
LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt has been an eager co-conspirator in Harlin’s adventures all along, but this time, he is in it up to his scalp.
Instead of beating time, Muffitt will act as “a beam from a lighthouse,” in Harlin’s description.
“As soon as his hand passes a player in the orchestra, they change from one chord to the next chord or sound,” Harlin said. The “lighthouse technique,” he explained, “creates a wave or cascade of shifting sonorities.”
If the birdsong-like passages that permeated “River of Doubt” felt spontaneous and natural, that’s because they were. There, as in “Earthrise,” Harlin gives musicians “parameters” on when to play instead of “prescribing notes.”
“I’m pushing against what players are used to doing, and I’m so happy Lansing is open to stuff like that,” he said. “It’ll be crazy — I hope — to see how this plays out. You can’t capture it with a video recording and microphones. It just isn’t the same.”