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“Keep your feet on the ground and your head in the clouds,” we are told. Thursday’s Lansing Symphony season opener took this useful cliché to sublime extremes.
An evening-length arch of triumph began at ground level, with earthy, Spanish-style stomps, airlifted into the violin-osphere somewhere over Paris with soloist Melissa White, and slammed back to Earth with Roman legions whose relentless march into the sunrise made “Spartacus” look like “Mary Poppins.”
The lilting dance rhythms and stern matador-iosity of Manuel de Falla’s “Three Cornered Hat” started the night with fine-grained washes of color, even though it’s hard to cast a spell on an audience after the bombast of the obligatory season opener, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The loud lady in the middle of the hall — a fixture at every public performance of the national anthem, no matter where it may be heard — truly surpassed herself on “rocket’s red glare.”
After dispensing with the brisk, blustery bullfights, the orchestra turned to something less dusty — the honeyed yearnings of Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme.”
Violinist Melissa White, a Lansing native, got an extra warm welcome in her home town and lived up to it. “Poeme” is more of a meditation than an exhibition of virtuoso skill, ideally suited to White’s steady, perfectly weighted tone and deeply centered musical presence.
About that tone: this is the part where I usually fumble for metaphorical equivalents like butterscotch, Albanian thornberry wine or puppy nose leather, but where White is concerned, it’s a study in futility. Her performance was not just a matter of maintaining an exquisite, darkly luminous tone throughout. Her whole being, her confidence and joy in the music, merged with hard-earnd musical mastery to dissolve the listener’s clumsy, troubled ego — always busy striving toward God knows what — and absorb it into her own, higher journey.
The music climaxed with a series of high trills that escaped even metaphorical gravity. In the highest register of her instrument, where the oxygen grew thin and my ears reflexively shrunk into worried slits, White coaxed me up with her, as if to say, “I know it’s scary, but just look at the stars up here.”
After half time, White returned for a sweet soupcon of French sensuality, the “Havanaise” of Camille Saint-Saëns. Always the sensitive, supple collaborator, Muffitt and the orchestra acted as gentle gendarmes, subtly enforcing the dance rhythms under White’s dreamy melodies and flourishes.
Just when they had the audience purring complacently, like a collective cat in a sunny, lace-draped window, all Hell broke loose.
“The Pines of Rome” started with disconnected whoops, firework-like bursts and jingle-jangles suggesting a festival directed jointly by Walt Disney and Federico Fellini. Just when it reached a clown-car climax, the bottom dropped out, making possible the kind of gut punch Muffitt loves to deliver.
Suddenly, the low strings and woodwinds intoned a terrifying, ancient chord of uncanny depth. There you were, watching the clowns, when you forgot you were in Rome, somehow turned into an alley and found yourself completely alone with 3,000 years of cruel antiquity.
Then the fun really began. Muffitt massaged a series of slowly pulsing crescendi from the orchestra, producing sounds that seemed to ooze from a deep tunnel under the very stones of the city. Chestrattling organ tones bubbled up from beneath the double basses like magma from Vesuvius. Deep in the catacombs, the dead, the bones and the terrible spirits of the ancient Romans rolled out of their tombs in an inexorable waves until the white walls, gory arenas and towering aqueducts of the city seemed to un-crumble and re-form all around.
The shock and awe was already over the top, but the best was yet to come. A sylvan interlude conjured up a summer afternoon in the Mediterranean sun, complete with bird song and a drifting solo by principal clarinetist Guy Yehuda, but you knew it was only a setup.
Quietly at first, the pounding began on the bass drum, and never let up.
The march of the Roman legions, one of the most spectacular showpieces in orchestral music, was under way.
Five percussionists took up their pagan work. The crucial hinge moment, when it dawns on you that this thing is going all the way, was provided by English horn soloist Gretchen Morse, who stood her ground with a worried-sounding solo that tried to push the apocalypse back with a lyrical feather. Good luck with that.
For the rest of the night, Muffitt was more a general than maestro. He turned around, like Douglas MacArthur riding on a halftrack, and cued a brass phalanx tucked into the Wharton Center balcony. The antiphonal brass figures bounced off of each other, like legions forming up from far-flung positions and converging for battle. But instead of a bloody mess, this march ended in a major chord, a rising sun so bright you couldn’t look at it directly. Boo history, hooray for music.