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Timothy Muffitt, Lansing Symphony Orchestra music director and conductor, has stepped down — from his other gig, as music director of the Baton Rouge Symphony.
Muffitt plans to stay in Lansing, where he’s been maestro since 2006, and is negotiating with the orchestra board for a renewal. His three-year contract in Lansing is up in May.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Muffitt said in a phone interview last week.
LSO Executive Director Courtney Millbrook said the orchestra’s board of directors has already met with Muffitt and expects an extension of his contract to be finalized “within a few weeks.”
Muffitt will conduct his last concert as music director in Baton Rouge in May 2020. After that, he’ll make occasional appearances as music director laureate.
Muffitt wants to carve out time to pursue other projects.
“I’ve gotten phone calls over the years where I’ve had to say ‘no, thanks for asking,’ and I’d like to be able to say ‘yes’ and see where that takes me,” he said. “I’m hoping the phone keeps ringing, because this is a bit of a professional gamble.”
Holding down two music director posts, in Lansing and Baton Rouge, left Muffitt little time for anything else. Around 20 years as maestro in Baton Rouge seemed like a fitting time to halve his podia.
“I feel that I’m kind of in my prime right now,” he said. “I want to do it now, where I’m still at a point in my career that people will care.”
He has no specific plans now, but opera, ballet and other arts projects might be part of the mix.
“I’ve been invited to do a number of things overseas I haven’t been able to do,” he said. “I would love to conduct more opera and ballet. I’ve done quite a bit of it and it’s very exciting.”
Music lore is replete with stories of big city maestros falling ill and calling on last-minute replacements. (It worked wonders for a young Leonard Bernstein.) If something happened, say, to Los Angeles Philharmonic maestro Gustavo Dudamel, it might be nice to be able to pick up the stick on quick notice.
“I wish Gustavo Dudamel all the best health, but if I could ever help him out, I’d be there,” he said with a laugh.
For now, Muffitt is making no sudden moves.
“It’s an opportunity to collect my thoughts and think about how to move forward into the next chapter of my life and career,” he said.
Muffitt expects his center of gravity to move closer to Lansing, where he already has a residence.
“I’ll miss dearly my friends and colleagues in Baton Rouge,” he said. “I love the city. It’s a great orchestra and we’ve accomplished a lot of exciting things.”
The maestro is still on a roll in Lansing. Under Muffitt, the Lansing Symphony has tackled a series of challenging works by the likes of Stravinsky, Bruckner, Prokofiev, Bartok and Shostakovich and is checking all the big boxes when it comes to classic repertoire, including Tchaikovsky’s tragic Sixth Symphony, coming up in March.
“To have our orchestra being critical in creating these new pieces by important composers — it’s awesome,” he said. “Especially when a significant amount of our audience embraces it as fully as they do.”
Muffitt singled out the symphony’s executive director, Courtney Millbrook, for special praise.
“I feel like this orchestra, every month, we put a program together and it’s just — wow. What fires me up the most is hearing how magnificently they’re playing right now.”
In Lansing, Muffitt has forged a felicitous alloy of big-city talent and smalltown enthusiasm. Besides shining the spotlight on local treasures like trombonist Ava Ordman and pianist Ralph Votapek, Muffitt has also drawn top tier guests like guitarist Sharon Isbin, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis and pianist Christopher O’Riley.
The maestro is also delighted with community support in Lansing, especially for the world premieres and newly commissioned music the orchestra has performed in recent years.
Last month, the Lansing Symphony premiered a new harp concerto by one of the foremost American composers, Jennifer Higdon. The month before, the orchestra premiered a trombone concerto by MSU faculty composer David Biedenbender.
“She’s a superstar,” he said. “It’s hard to keep an orchestra going in this business and we are really lucky to have someone like her.”
If contract negotiations go well, Muffitt will lead the orchestra through its 90th anniversary season next year. (Millbrook said the orchestra has “special plans” for the gala season, to be announced in the spring.)
If he sticks around Lansing long enough, he may even see Lansing’s long held dream of a downtown performing arts center, with the symphony as a key tenant, become a reality.
A public-private partnership is in the early stages of exploring funding options and possible locations for a mid-sized venue, with the enthusiastic support of Mayor Andy Schor.
“I was appreciative that our administration thought it was worthwhile pursuing,” Muffitt said. “But I thought, ‘Don’t get your hopes up.’ Now it looks like maybe it could happen. That would be an amazing thing.”