Viscosity and verve

Lansing Symphony Orchestra nails Beethoven, oozes Wagner


The Lansing Symphony Orchestra checked some bucket-list-level boxes at its ambitious MasterWorks concert Saturday night (March 23), including one of the biggest: Beethoven’s thrilling violin concerto, featuring guest soloist Bella Hristova.

The concerto is a favorite of almost everybody (including Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed in the Granada Television version of “The Resident Patient”), and with good reason. It’s really a full-on symphony, complete with romance, drama, an interlude of blissful serenity, good old Beethoven banging and a finale that exudes pure joy.

Some violinists muscle their way through it as if they juiced up and went to the gym. Hristova didn’t try to overpower the audience, or the orchestra, but still saw to it that her sinuous, sweet tone was never swamped, no matter how much stern hammering went on around her. She swam around and between the big boulders like a vividly colored coral snake, impossible not to follow.

Kindly indulge me as I switch animal metaphors to describe her most impressive moments. Twice in the massive opening movement, it was her job to move the music from one lofty perch to the next. When she made the leap in a sudden flutter of gorgeous, fleeting notes, it was like being startled by a heron as it takes wing to command a higher branch.

In the pine-forest-pure slow movement, Hristova’s tone took on a miraculous, weightless glide, especially in the middle and low registers. She played coloratura warbles like nobody’s business, but she also shared with the orchestra an invaluable talent for sending one simple note, however fleeting, straight to the heart of the listener.

Conductor Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra were in a zone of confident mastery all night, juggling drastically different musical worlds like it was no big deal. The second half of the concert began with the prelude and final movement of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” a tantric exercise in slow buildup and release that’s about as far from Beethoven’s rum-te-tum cadences as you can get. Muffitt and the orchestra pulled the titanic wad of taffy without letup, generating bigger and bigger rainbows of orchestral color, forcing you to submit to Wagner whether you wanted to or not. The mighty sound kept building and building until the two heavy hitters stationed near the back wall, timpanist Sarah Christianson and principal tuba player Philip Sinder, picked up their weapons, and you knew you were in for the ultimate in Wagnerian splendor.

Next, as if to show off their collective versatility, all forces turned on a dime, schmucking their boots out of the viscous goo of “Tristan” and leaping straight into the fleet hijinks of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” I feel obliged to confess that I’ve always hated this work, which somehow manages to be both too silly and not silly enough (at least for Bugs Bunny). But damned if they didn’t make it fun. Every little antic was etched with such verve and panache that there was no time to become bilious. Densely packed, delicious moments whizzed by one after another, highlighted by a nimble exchange between principal horn player Corbin Wagner and violinist (and concertmaster) Will Thain. Volleys of sudden, furious thunder from Christianson, one of two aspirants in the running for the orchestra’s principal timpani chair, kept things extra lively.

After such a grand tour of Beethoven, Wagner and Strauss, the opening work on Saturday’s slate began to seem like a distant memory, but it’s a memory well worth jogging.

Despite their fancy and arbitrary-seeming titles, many contemporary works are just out to give you a cosmic thrill ride, beginning with wispy brush strokes and climaxing in a major-key supernova. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Sarah Gibson’s “to make this mountain taller” proved to be a more nuanced, thoughtful statement. Inchoate hints of melody swirled upward and abruptly disappeared, hinting at the nascent power of isolated individual voices trying to be heard.

In the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Gibson was inspired to write the work after reading a Rupi Kaur poem invoking “the sacrifices of one million women before me.” It’s always dicey to connect too many dots between a composer’s program notes and the notes you hear in a performance, but it’s also fair to assume that Gibson made her thoughts known for a reason. Gradually, the wisps and hints started to get some traction and coalesced into a tremendous chord, as if a collective consciousness had formed and found a way to flex its power. That seemed to press a giant “reset” button. The music took on an organized, contrapuntal momentum, a sense of propulsion and purpose, with cellos zipping up and down the scale as if they were all playing Bach in furious lockstep.

The closing of orchestral ranks into a formidable, overwhelming force was awesome and inspiring, but it did not culminate in the customary blast of major-key ecstasy. The ending sounded more like a question — or a desperate hope for further action.



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