All brains, no waste

Classics and jazz are jumping like salmon in greater Lansing

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Maybe you saw that show on PBS about the river in Alaska where the salmon run is so stupendous the bears gorge themselves on the tastiest part — the brains — and leave the rest laying around on the rocks for lesser creatures to pick at.

When it comes to prime classical and jazz music, played by some of the world’s top creative artists, that’s where we are in greater Lansing.

The bad news is — it’s all brains.

From the spine-tingling swells of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra to innumerable recitals, jams and concerts at MSU’s burgeoning College of Music to stellar, I-just-dropped-by-with-my-killer-chops Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s Pub, the salmon run is on, with post-hiatus energy, and shows no sign of letting up.

Here are just a few highlights of a triumphant 2020-21 comeback year, with apologies to those we’ve had to leave on the rocks for lack of space.

After a year and a half of on-line events and outdoor, socially distanced concerts featuring small ensembles or solo musicians, The Lansing Symphony kicks off its 2021-2022 season Oct. 9 with a moving, occasion-appropriate work by American composer Roger Briggs, “Gathering Together,” and finishes with a head-banger, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, with pianist-composer Michael Brown as soloist. Lauded in The New York Times as  “young piano visionary,” Brown is the kind of top-drawer soloist the LSO has routinely brought to town since widely respected maestro Timothy Muffitt has taken the helm.

Another such guest is charismatic actress and violinist Lucia Micarelli, known to many HBO viewers as the busker Annie Talarico in the “Treme” series, who will join the orchestra Nov. 12 to play the Sibelius violin concerto. Suren Bagratuni, a Russian master in the tradition of Mistislav Rostropovich, will play searing music that is very close to his heart, Dmitri Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, at a Jan. 14, 2022 concert that will close with Antonin Dvorak’s Sixth Symphony. On March 19, the LSO serves up the sleeper of the bunch, a tightly braided set of witty, classically scaled works by Haydn, Mozart and Francis Poulenc. The season closer March 19 will feature Brahms’ magisterial Second Symphony.

It’s not that hard to devour an LSO concert every month or two as it swims by, but this year, MSU’s College of Music is in the midst of a relentless, radiant run — a Renaissance, even. The return to live concerts is only part of the celebration. There will finally be a proper unveiling of the new Billman Music Pavilion, with its two new state-of-the-art performance halls, along with a full slate of music — new and old, daring and comforting, big, and small — in the recently refurbished Fairchild Auditorium and Cook Recital Hall.

This year also marks the live performing debut of two exciting new conductors at MSU, the dynamic Octavio Más-Arocas and new music champion Katherine Kilburn.

MSU has pushed for more varied programs for years, but this season marks a decisive pivot to diverse and fresh classical programming. Every ensemble, every concert series and every occasion is bursting with names most concert-goers have never heard of — young composers, female composers, Black, Asian and Latin composers, restless creators with ideas that meld with other genres and styles of music.

One dizzying case in point is the orchestra’s Nov. 23 concert, with Kilburn conducting, that includes “Sinfonia (For Orbiting Spheres)” by Missy Mizzoli, a piece by New York composer Jessie Montgomery (whose music is also featured on the Nov. 12 Lansing Symphony concert) and a symphony by the ever-acerbic Kurt Weill.

New music ensemble Musique 21 is swimming at the crest of this current with four multi-media extravaganazs (Sept. 20, Oct. 18, Jan. 31 and April 25), including a concert devoted entirely to music of living female composers (“The Sound of Her Voice,” Oct. 18).

The Wind Symphony and Symphony Band will play new works by visiting guest composers Jennifer Jolley (Oct. 21) and Andrew Perkins (Oct. 22). “Standing at the Beam,” a choral work by Andrea Clearfield devoted to healing victims of sexual abuse, gets a world premiere April 2.

MSU’s Jazz Studies Program is in one of the best in the world, with bassist Rodney Whitaker in charge, and his fellow professors — saxophonist Diego Rivera, trombonist Michael Dease, guitarist Randy Napoleon, pianist Xavier Davis, drummer Randy Gelispie, and a new addition, trumpeter Anthony Stanco — are a constant presence around town, in formal recitals and informal jams. Most of them are riding high, with new recordings that are winning critical acclaim and getting airplay on jazz radio, and ready to move into a fresh creative phase.

As if the resident jazz titans were not enough to take in, MSU Jazz Studies boasts an artist in residence program that has already drawn many of the world’s top jazz musicians to East Lansing. This season’s slate is even more star-studded than usual: Pianist/composer Renee Rosnes in October, drummer Lewis Nash in December, vibraphonist Stefon Harris in February and violinist Regina Carter in March. Each of these top international stars will be in town for a week of teaching and touring the state with MSU students and faculty, culminating in an always joyous showcase performance at MSU.

Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s, organized by veteran drummer/educator Jeff Shoup, is the quintessential jazz club experience in Lansing, with faculty and student luminaries from the MSU Jazz Studies program mixing it up in endless combinations with traveling artists from Detroit, the Midwest and beyond. It’s a chance to hear talented young students mix it up with veterans and special guests or hear a heavyweight like MSU trombonist Michael Dease or bassist Rodney Whitaker stretch beyond the confines of more formal concerts and recitals. A few miles north, Old Town’s Urban Beat has already stepped up its ambitious slate of live music, with a nearly nightly lineup of local and visiting jazz, blues and classical chamber music artists in an intimate setting. 

The Absolute Music chamber series carries on with father and son duo Aaron and Charles Berofsky playing music for violin and piano Oct. 14, a classical and jazz “fusion” Nov. 18 with saxophonist Andrew Speight and pianists Xavier Davis and Genadi Zagor, guitar-violin duet William Knuth and Adam Levin Jan. 13, a mashup of two percussionists and two pianists Feb. 3, and pianist extraordinaire Ralph Votapek March 31.

The Lansing Symphony’s own chamber series returns to First Presbyterian Church’s Molly Grove Chapel, beginning Oct. 17 with a flute-oboe-piano trio led by flutist Richard Sherman, who is also the series artistic director. A string quartet concert Dec. 5 features the music of Florence Price and LSO composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin. Harlin’s music will also resound, in grander scale, at two of the orchestra’s regular concerts. The Molly Grove Chapel will rock at the Jan. 30 chamber concert, as a battery of two pianists and two percussionists tackles no less a challenge: Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

Clearly, greater Lansing’s musicians are in no mood to mess around this season. Just remember that music has an even shorter shelf life than salmon. Grab as much juicy brain food as you can before the silvery stream of time carries it off.

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