LSO goes where no one has gone before in season closer

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Is there anything new under the Sun? The first minutes of “Earthrise,” the world premiere of a cosmic-themed work by LSO composer-in-residence Patrick Harlin, left room for doubt. 

World premiere or not, it all sounded familiar. Tiny twinkles of “Star Trek,” swoops of stratospheric strings in the style of John Williams, chugging brass pulling against the Earth’s gravity, yeah, yeah, we know — but wait.  The eye-watering opener of Friday’s Lansing Symphony season closer was just getting started. Harlin had much bigger ideas in mind. 

Like a mad mixer with wall-to-wall reel-to-reel equipment, the orchestra fast-forwarded though every familiar space trope since Sputnik, including chattering, muted brass straight out of Carl Stalling’s “Bugs Bunny” adventures with Marvin the Martian. A premature climax came in the form of a ballsy bull charge into the fanfare from “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” aka “2001: A Space Odyssey.” BOOM, boom, BOOM. 

“There, that’s out of the way,” Harlin  seemed to be saying. “Now let’s get to business.” 

But where could they go from there? A gut-deep churning in the strings, followed by disorienting, verge-of-chaos acceleration, gave way to the most elusive of cosmic phenomena: human thought. Way up there, beyond escape velocity, quiet spaces beckoned. A simple downward “de-da,” answered with an upward “da-de,” hinted at deeper questions stirring in the void. In a maneuver Harlin calls the “lighthouse,” music director Timothy Muffitt swept his arm 180 degrees, back and forth — sometimes fast, sometimes slowly — as the sections of the orchestra changed color, pattern and texture like a luminescent squid.  

Finally, amid the murmurs and pulsations, the wonderment and the vertigo, a three-syllable love theme marked the moment humans looked back and saw their own home, the tiny blue Earth, rising above the horizon of the Moon.

An inner voice seemed to whisper, “There it is. There it is.” Massive pillars of melody in the brass underpinned what may be history’s most dramatic epiphany — the shocking image of Earthrise.  

At that moment, tears welled up in my eyes. I found myself thinking, not about space travel, but about the end of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” when the dead Emily rises from the cemetery to watch her own 12th birthday party and futilely urges the living people to appreciate what they have. 

The strings exhaled a sigh of revelation that ionized into glassy harmonics as the orchestra thrummed and exploded to an orgiastic climax of self-recognition. 

It’s a good thing Harlin is sticking around for another year as LSO composer-in-residence, having lost out on the pandemic season of 2019-2020 — but good luck following this one up. 

There’s nothing like touching native soil after returning from space (or so I’ve heard), and that made the solidity and weight of Florence Price’s Piano Concerto all the more welcome. The very first note played by guest pianist Clayton Stephenson hit so hard it rang the Earth’s crust like a bell. That enabled Stephenson and the orchestra to anchor stern columns of sound into the bedrock and string them with grand cables of spacious melody. 

Stephenson had power to spare, but he seemed to relish lingering in the quieter gardens of the second movement, dreamily drawing out melody after melody. Many times, the notes at the end of a phrase dripped sweetly from his hand like dark syrup from a tree trunk. Along the way, he drew oboist Stephanie Shapiro and cellist JinHyun Kim into delightful, one-on-one dances.  

The finale shook off any lingering melancholy with a rousing juba, an early form of ragtime dance. Rarely does an orchestral stab at anything close to jazz escape a feeling of awkwardness, and this performance was no exception. But Stephenson’s overall zest and the orchestra’s energy pulled you on the floor in spite of yourself. 

Uh-oh — the red light is on, meaning it’s time to wrap up, but it’s just as well. It saves me from an exhausting, and futile, blow-by-blow description of the evening’s epic closer, Brahms’ magisterial Second Symphony. The whole horn section, especially principal horn Corbin Wagner, embodied the essence of light itself. Under Muffitt’s sweeping, big-picture direction, inexorable tectonic plates of sound melded, collided and came to rest, only to surge and shift into even more majestic forms. When the orchestra played an octave — the same note, sounding at high and low frequencies, in different sections of the orchestra — it felt like they were dividing the Biblical firmament above from the firmament below. This wasn’t even music. It was mist and rock, the twisting trunks of oaks and the sparkle of cascading rivers, revealed to your ears instead of your eyes.

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