REVIEW

Symphony’s post-pandemic return plumbs mixed emotions

Time to think

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To get a handhold on the first live concert the Lansing Symphony Orchestra has done in a year and a half — an event freighted with a thousand mixed emotions — let’s plunge straight into the heart of the program, Roger Briggs’ mysterious orchestral poem, “Gathering Together.”

Charged with capturing the queasy, hopeful and elusive spirit of the times, maestro Timothy Muffitt nailed it perfectly when he pulled this 1985 work from obscurity. These are not simple times.

A grand, clanging chime promised celebration of a high order, only to darken into a churning sea of ominous throbs. 

The pulsations rolled into each other, frontally, diagonally and sideways, generating a hypnotic pattern of crosscurrents. When the ominous undertow subsided, the low brass, woodwinds and strings fell away, like the Earth receding in the porthole of a spacecraft, leaving only tinkling percussion and nebulous sweeps of violin — a beautiful, but terrifying, isolation. Before long, only a dit-dit from the piano was left.

This was more than a simple celebration of gathering together. The music gave you the time, and the space, to reflect, whether you wanted to. When the sections of the orchestra started gathering again, the results were ambiguous. Naked shards of thought — ascending and descending figures from the strings and brass — coalesced and dissipated in the void. Again and again, the violins rose up, as if to consummate the joy of the occasion, only to bend downward under some unseen weight.

In 2021, this nearly 40-year-old music stands out for its freedom from the pressure to manufacture happy endings. Muffitt and the orchestra seemed to be pulling, pulling, pulling at some unseen rope with all they had, but there was nothing on the other end. Instead of a big finale, the music just died away.

Around the country, and the world, the people who plan orchestral concerts many months in advance faced a hopeless task programming this fall’s return to live performance.

A solemn and sad meditation, raising more questions than it answered, “Gathering Together” was a daring choice, but perfect for the moment.

There was nothing routine about this concert. Even this review, owing to the reviewer’s sexagenarian age and asthmatic lungs — not to mention the number of friends and acquaintances who have been visited with late-inning COVID cases — is based on Friday’s dress rehearsal, in an empty Wharton Center, and not on Saturday’s performance.

According to the symphony’s executive director, Courtney Millbrook, nearly 800 people attended Saturday’s concert, “about 60% of what we would have seen in the past for a season opening concert.” 

Sometimes, having time to think is a mixed blessing. The frantic, pseudo-jazz diversions and dance bombs of Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” suite took the opposite tack — dance it away, as frantically as possible.

The orchestra delivered the circus beats and pseudo-jazz tableaux with aplomb, but really shined in the suite’s Copland-esque middle section, a passionate meditation amid lonely streets bathed in moonlight and neon. 

The evening’s blockbuster, Tchaikovsky’s grandiose piano concerto, had it both ways. Packed between the grand gestures and angsty crescendi were a lot of sweet and playful ballet bits, a Tchaikovsky trademark, and guest soloist Michael Brown clearly relished such moments. 

Brown seemed to be eagerly awaiting what might come next (even though he, of all people, should have known) and that made him extra fun to watch.

Muffitt had a few tricks up his sleeve as well. Deep into a fitful cycle of Tchaikovskian mood swings, one of those lilting ballet melodies suddenly morphed into glowering power chords. The maestro’s athletic, flexible form sclerotized into a tower of gristle, veins and sinew, a la Iggy Pop, and the orchestra delivered a series of bruising body blows, all the more shocking for their sudden appearance.

The music’s fierce demands included jangly caffeinated passages in which Brown seemed to undergo mitosis and play about three inches beside himself. He pivoted seamlessly from romantic languor to steely strength, and the orchestra stuck with him, enrobing him in timpani tantrums and creamy effusions from the violins and violas that promise new heights in future performances.

It must be hard to bring music this familiar to life. (It’s hard just to listen to it with new ears.) Whenever the musicians seemed to be dutifully hitting the required marks, Muffitt would find some way to goose them out of it, or Brown would toy happily with a little ballet figure and bring everyone back into the moment.

But — this thing is a warhorse, and I can’t help wondering how much more interesting it would have been to have Brown play his own new piano concerto, or some other piece that Vivian Pickles didn’t swim the backstroke to in “Harold and Maude.”

That’s the trouble with these meditative movements that give you time to think. Questions start to bubble up about the role of the symphony orchestra in 2021 and beyond, but we’ll save those for another day. For now, it’s more than enough to celebrate the Lansing Symphony’s survival and undiminished high musicianship and wish it a bright future.

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