It didn’t take long to get the feeling that something extraordinary was about to happen at the second Lansing Symphony concert. (The concert was Friday, but this review is based on Thursday’s final rehearsal, owing to the reviewer’s age, health and COVID caution.) Early in the Sibelius violin concerto, soloist Lucia Micarelli whipsawed a slashing, double-stopped melody, producing two notes at once — a low-pitched tone that slid under the stage like a cobra and a higher pitched tone that coiled into the air like molten silver. The strings instantly responded with a visceral tremor, as if they were physically reacting to the Micarelli treatment. That tremor was the first sign that an intimate rapport between soloist and orchestra was being forged, an intimacy that continued through the whole concerto.
A bit further into the first movement, Micarelli dug into a commanding yet tender solo passage, her instrument groaning with deep resonance in the low register and slashing upward into the highest realms as cleanly as a razor. This time, the energized orchestra responded with more than a tremor. Utterances and reverberations rumbled forth from the cellos and basses. Most often, the woodwinds were the first section to respond to Micarelli’s solo passages, matching her timbres and fluidity so closely you could barely follow the handoffs.
The stage was set for Micarelli to take on the weight of the whole concerto in a long cadenza, unique in the repertoire, that goes well beyond the usual showing off to tackle the work’s Big Statement, all by herself. She took on the job with such command and tenderness that you could hear a phantom orchestra playing inside her mercurial, authoritative solo lines. After that, horns added a golden glow to the next orchestral swell and the music got even better.
Micarelli is a charismatic performer and a TV star (HBO’s “Treme”) as well as an accomplished classical violinist. This is a good place to insert an eyewitness description of Micarelli’s rock-star effect on the Lansing audience at Friday night’s concert from a spy, local music lover Bob Wilks, who reports:
“At the end of the first movement, there was silence, but something electric in the air -- a hesitation as though the audience was thinking, ‘We don't want you to get the impression that we're a hick town that doesn't know we're not supposed to clap until the end of the piece, but damn, that was good.’ Then somebody yelled out, ‘Woo Hoo!’ and the audience burst into applause. Lucia Micarelli smiled and I think, under their masks, the maestro and the orchestra were smiling too.”
My spy reported applause after the idyllic slow movement, too, and no wonder. Micarelli’s flowing lines embodied both the light and the shadows that fall on the best day ever, when everything unfolds perfectly, from the pink in the sky at sunrise to the last guttering candle. Melodies just seemed to drop from her, straight and true, unforced and with no evident exertion. After a lifetime of study, preparation and practice, she has clearly reached the point where she can let herself be completely in the moment, and the orchestra was totally locked in to her spirit of spontaneity.
After the Big Statement and the Perfect Day, how do you wrap up a symphony/concerto of such epic proportions? Plenty of composers have faced this problem, and nearly all of them, even stern old Sibelius, have resorted to a tried and true formula: Get on the dance floor. At times, the huge scale of the finale suggested a ponderous polka of walruses in waistcoats, but what’s wrong with that? As the third and final movement whirled to a frenzy, Micarelli found herself moving with the orchestra, nodding her head as if to say, “That’s what I’m talking about.”
The concert opened with American composer Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum,” in which principal cellist JinHyun Kim’s heartfelt solo lines served as an anchor point for an intricate, multi-layered web of vibrations woven by the strings alone. The music’s impact was way out of proportion to its brief length. Pivoting, merging and diverging with seamless grace, the LSO strings etched every layer with limpid clarity and wicked momentum, all the way to a powerful (and tricky) climactic acceleration. The other major work on Friday’s slate, Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4, began with a tilting and bending of vast slabs of sound, raw material that coalesced into muscular melodies supported by Parthenon-scaled columns of chords. If you reconcile yourself to Schumann’s almost dad-ly rhetorical scheme, it’s pretty impressive stuff. (He likes to say everything twice, quietly the first time, then loud, as if to say “I mean it this time, buster!”) At one point, the music built to a blustering climax that turned out to be a fake-out, dropping suddenly into a noble, exquisite lament, clothed in wisps of gossamer violin flutters. The second movement was almost like a physics experiment, an elemental exercise in force and counterforce. Maestro Timothy Muffitt wrung every possible thrill out of the fantastic buildup to the third movement, in which more vast columns up-thrusted before your ears, supporting a writhing entablature of melodies and counter-melodies struggling like Hercules to sum it all up.
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