If there’s one juicy kernel to glean from the Lansing Symphony Orchestra’s 2023-‘24 season, it’s that new music is back. Not sneakily, tentatively or apologetically, but with zest, gusto and strong audience support.
Each of the LSO’s five MasterWorks concerts scheduled for next season features a brand new, major work, along with the usual trove of treasures from the likes of Beethoven, Rachmaninoff and Mozart. Several are world premieres and haven’t even been written yet.
LSO Music Director Timothy Muffitt credited an impressive crop of creative 21st century composers who aren’t afraid to express big ideas and write music that neither alienates nor panders to the audience.
That includes the LSO’s current composer-in-residence, Patrick Harlin, who came through with moving works like “Bloom,” “River of Doubt” and last year’s “Earthrise,” drawing gasps and tears from the audience and surpassing Muffitt’s wildest expectations.
“There’s a wonderful opportunity to be active participants in the world of musical creativity that’s happening right now,” Muffitt said. “It’s not just the musicians and the composer. The audience is an active participant and everyone feels that energy.”
With plenty of fresh music to clear the cobwebs, the LSO is drawing a new mix of stalwart older fans and younger faces.
“We’re seeing our audience coming back,” Muffitt said. “We’re not quite where we were in 2019, but we’re moving in the right direction in a meaningful way.”
The season opener, on Sept. 14, will begin with music by the LSO’s next composer-in-residence, whoever that might be. Harlin’s three-year term expires at the end of the current season and the search is already on for a successor. Muffitt said it’s now down to four candidates, one of whom will be chosen “in the next several weeks.”
The Sept. 14 concert will also feature Dvorak’s “New World” symphony and Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. The guest soloist will be Claire Huangci, a rising young pianist with a gorgeous, warm sound.
It’s easy to eye-roll the overly familiar “New World” symphony, but Muffitt is campaigning for a closer look at Dvorak’s folk-inspired masterpiece, in a 21st-century light.
“Here’s a composer of Eastern European origin who is acknowledging the depth and profundity of the music of the Native American and African-American,” he said. “That multi-cultural aspect is important, along with simply being a fantastic symphony.”
The Nov. 10 concert is a monster, pairing Carl Orff’s orgasmic “Carmina Burana” with a noble, tender and playful work by flutist and composer Valerie Coleman, “Umoja Anthem of Unity.”
Coleman is also the founder of the Imani Winds, an adventurous, poly-stylistic wind ensemble that visited East Lansing in 2019 last year and will return this month.
The first thing Muffitt did when he heard “Umoja Anthem” was to listen to it again. And again. He loved it so much he snuck its ecstatic last four minutes into the LSO’s 2022 Holiday Pops concert.
“People loved it, because there’s no containing the joy that’s written into this music,” Muffitt said. “I think I’ll do it next year, too.”
No recording can do justice to a live, surround-sound immersion in “Carmina Burana.” Muffitt led a mind-blowing performance of the work in 2007 and decided it was time to bring it back.
“Every moment is fresh sounding and appealing,” he said. “It’s just one of those magical pieces.”
The massed MSU choral groups, along with vocal soloists Penelope Shumate, David Shaler and Babatunde Akinboboye, will help the orchestra unleash the many splendors of Orff’s magnum opus.
Each year, Muffitt likes to feature a top LSO musician in a solo role. Principal trumpet Neil Mueller will step into the spotlight Jan. 12, playing a brand new concerto by MSU composition prof David Biedenbender.
Add Biedenbender to the lengthening list of 21st-century composers with something to say and a knack for saying it memorably. In 2018, he wrote a probing and profound trombone concerto for LSO principal trombonist Ava Ordman. Biedenbender likes to tailor his works to the performing style and personality of individual performers, and that’s just what he’ll do with Mueller.
Also featured on the Jan. 12 fight card are Mozart’s Symphony No. 35, a downy patch of peach-fuzz precocity written when the composer was 17, and the opera-riffic Symphony No. 1 by Georges Bizet.
Another extra large LSO force will assemble March 23 to tackle Beethoven’s epic violin concerto, with internationally renowned guest soloist Bella Hristova.
To take advantage of the reinforcements on hand for the Beethoven, Muffitt is bringing out major works by Wagner (“Tristan and Isolde”) and Richard Strauss (“Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks”) that he has wanted to program for years.
The concert will also feature the Michigan premiere of a work by witty, sparkling and spiky Los Angeles-based composer Sarah Gibson, “to make this mountain taller” (the lower case letters are intentional), inspired in part by a poem by Canadian poet Rupi Kaur.
The season closer May 10 will feature another new work by the LSO’s next composer-in-residence and a piano concerto to be announced. A series of exciting young pianists have come to Lansing as part of the LSO’s ongoing collaboration with the Gilmore Piano Festival, and one of them will do the solo honors. The concert will conclude with a major work Muffitt has not conducted in Lansing, the grand Symphony No. 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.
Muffitt considers Rachmaninoff’s Third to be superior, in many ways, to the more celebrated Second.
“It has the everything in it that we love about Rachmaninoff,” Muffitt said. “It’s got the aching melodies, the color, the sonic splendor, but it’s more streamlined, with clarity and concision.”
In addition to a slate of four chamber concerts at First Presbyterian Church’s Molly Grove Chapel (Sept. 24, Oct. 15, Nov. 19 and Jan. 21), next year’s LSO season will bring its back most successful experiment in recent memory — a sellout series of adventurous small-ensemble concerts at REO Town’s Robin Theatre, featuring music by living composers, many of them not only locally based, but in the house.
A new addition to the schedule is “Winterlude,” Feb. 4, 2024, a blast of brass and organ music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Three pops concerts will be dedicated to holiday music (Dec. 17), the Beatles (“Classical Mystery Tour,” Feb. 16) and “Star Wars” (“May the Fourth be With You,” May 4).
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