Clarion call

LSO season opener was pure caffeine and sunshine


There was nothing tentative about the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-’24 season opener Thursday (Sept. 14). A bulked-up, trimmed-down, energized, REM-sleep-refreshed orchestra and its ramrod-vigorous music director, Timothy Muffitt, left all the settling in and throat clearing to the audience and got right down to carpet-peeling, rafter-rattling business.

The horn section all but stole the show, earning a whooping standing ovation for its efforts. In the evening’s closer, Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, they weren’t just horns — they were Matterhorns, flawless and forthright, opening up a silvery portal into the infinite and flooding the hall with the aural equivalent of caffeine and sunshine.

The “New World” is a familiar work — and a pretty conservative choice for an orchestral concert in 2023 — but people love it for good reason. But it wasn’t enough for Muffitt and the orchestra to merely cover the same old ground. They mounted the old warhorse as if it were Bucephalus and rode forth strictly to conquer like Alexander the Great.

It felt as if Muffitt was daring the audience to relax, thinking that they knew the music already — the better to open the trap door and remind everyone of its sonic power and emotional impact. The “New World” is famous for its use of folk-inspired material, but it’s not folksy. Thursday’s performance exposed the steely superstructure that supports the symphony and gave full scope to its stormy, minor-key paroxysms and cataclysms.

It doesn’t hurt that in his 13th season as music director, Muffitt is still incapable of phoning in a sandwich order, let alone an orchestral performance. Appearing more eager than ever to make the case, not just for this symphony but for orchestral music in general, he pushed, pulled, prodded and pirouetted to get the maximum out of every section and soloist. In the finale, when all the pterodactyls flew home to roost in a single dinosaur stampede, the maestro sprang two extra limbs and transformed into an arthropod — a six-legged creature, to non-specialists. His top arms exhorted the brass, his middle arms cued the woodwinds, and his bottom arms stirred the violins, cellos and basses. That’s what I saw, anyway. Maybe we should call in the military.

The middle work on Thursday’s slate, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, was a more subtle and delicate affair — sort of. Guest piano soloist Claire Huangci and the orchestra deftly navigated the tricky, circus-like first movement, full of brassy sonic tricks and stylistic flip-flops. I don’t appreciate it when someone slips a mouse into my boxer shorts, snaps the elastic band in triumph and suddenly turns romantic and serenades me with a love song, but maybe that’s just me. In any case, that’s nobody’s fault but Ravel’s, whose unearthly harmonies and melodies are so divine the rest of the time that we forgive him for the mice in our shorts.

Fortunately, Huangci played with crisp precision and a clear sense of where it all was going, and that made it easier to surrender to the music’s twists and turns. She proved a perfect tour guide, exulting in the music but never losing herself completely. She didn’t milk the gorgeous and songful slow movement, but she didn’t hurry it, either. Her extended slow dance with LSO English horn master Gretchen Morse drifted through the hall like pristine mountain air — or cigarette smoke in a Paris bistro, if that’s your preferred milieu for romance.

The “New World” symphony is ready for a long rest, no matter how well it’s done, and Ravel is a very old friend, however urbane and stimulating. That left the thrill of hearing something fresh to newly appointed composer-in-residence Jared Miller, and he came through with a wild curtain raiser. “Surge and Swell” felt like getting into an elevator with a maniacal massage therapist whose meds are quickly wearing off — and I mean that in the best possible sense.

It started with a jaunty, twinkly jingle, played mostly by high woodwinds and mallet percussion. The innocuous, lilting figure gradually came unmoored from itself, splitting into syncopated splinters and rousing the rest of the orchestra to come out of hibernation like a wintering bear. Layer by layer, the whole orchestra stirred to life, from timpani to strings to soaring brass, all to the beat of a bass drum, relentless as the heartbeat of a whale.

Miller is a master of a 21st-century style of orchestral music, with roots in 20th-century minimalism, that bypasses the usual labyrinths of symphonic structure to press directly on the pleasure centers of the brain.

At one point, a three-note chime, similar to the old NBC chime on network TV, took over completely, announcing itself not as a prelude or afterthought to anything else but as a pure wellspring of sonic satisfaction.

If committed conductors like Muffitt are still passionately making the case for orchestral music by keeping classics like the “New World” fresh and alive, composers like Miller are looking for new ways to delight and communicate, using one of the most intricate, powerful and expressive toys in the rusty old box of Western civilization.

One of the handiest things about having a composer in residence is that they give you fresh ways to wake people up with exhilarating works like “Surge and Swell” instead of trotting out the customary bloviating overture. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many wonders Miller will produce during his two-year appointment with the LSO.


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