Titanic tutti tornado: High drama roils Lansing Symphony season finale


Some people avoid drama like the plague. Those people wouldn’t have had much fun at Friday’s (May 10) Lansing Symphony Orchestra season finale. 

The night was drenched in drama, from the keen, heartfelt piano artistry of guest soloist Harmony Zhu to a sonic blowout by LSO composer-in-residence Jared Miller to massifs of melody penned by arch-romantic Sergei Rachmaninoff.  

The drama was sometimes hushed, but no less compelling. Despite her relative youth, Zhu has already enjoyed a fabulous career and is beyond the point where she needs to prove anything. She played with a light touch and an acute intellectual and emotional sensitivity that made you want to lean in and listen as closely as possible. 

The orchestra followed suit and accompanied Zhu with great sensitivity in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, producing a watercolor wash that perfectly set off her finely etched piano lines. 

Zhu’s pauses were just as expressive as the surrounding notes. When she jumped an octave, it seemed as if she was starting from a dream. In the slow movement, she reached beyond the music’s superficial beauty to express a placid fatalism beyond the reach of pain. There were moments when each note carried a shocking emotional weight, like the ominous tones of a life support monitor. 

As she navigated the highs and lows of Mozart’s moods, her hands seemed to be working out a complex relationship with one another, like characters in a 19th-century novel. Her moody left hand, dressed in a black cloak, stalked the edge of the sea-swept cliffs, reveling in each near-fatal plunge into the lower register. Her airy right hand, lit by the moon, stood on the nearby heath, clad in a billowing nightdress, and called out, sweetly as a nightingale, “Come back, my dearest! You have so much to live for!”    

Whoa — that’s a lot of drama. But the most dramatic outburst of the evening occurred in the middle of the concert’s opener, “Luster,” a bravura 2018 thrill ride by Miller. 

Followers of postmodern orchestral music are familiar with this weather pattern by now. Mysterious wisps of woodwinds spiraled hither and yon. A storm front of ominous brass and pounding timpani, egged on by a sliding trombone, generated a titanic tutti tornado, clearing the air for a major-key, gentle, garden-after-the-storm idyll. 

What’s not to love? Sonically spectacular stuff like this, played with admirable precision and spirit, makes for a more interesting curtain raiser than your average bombastic overture. Nevertheless, the 21st century is getting on, and these postmodern, cosmic thrill rides are starting to blur together. Although Miller is only halfway through his stint as composer in residence, it’s beginning to feel like his sensibility is not far removed from that of his predecessor, Patrick Harlin.  

Nobody ever called Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony, the main meat on Friday’s program, a quickie, although it squeezes the usual four movements into three. 

Despite the symphony’s lush, wall-to-wall romanticism, it has a slightly off-kilter quality that music director Timothy Muffitt and the orchestra exploited to the utmost degree. Its tentative, mysterious beginning is just a diversionary tactic, meant to make you lean forward and hearken closer, only to get blasted by a sudden call to attention. The maestro made sure it got our attention. 

From that moment on, Rachmaninoff’s famous melodies poured forth from all sections of the orchestra, burnished with a sepia-toned, Hollywood-esque aura of glamor, excitement and a touch of good old Russian fatalism. 

The principal melody, full of longing and hope, morphed into myriad forms along the way. At one glorious moment, it rolled out like a bulbous 1940s automobile on a runway, gleaming with chrome and brio. 

A maximum-sized string section outdid itself in the hushed, velvety reverie that opened the middle movement. Gently stirring its stage-spanning wings of sound, the section stirred to life with the delicacy, power and strangeness of a majestic phoenix. A lot happens in this movement as it accelerates from downy dreamland to booming field artillery and decelerates back again. Guiding an audience through an expansive, sometimes overwhelming musical landscape is Muffitt’s forte (and, sometimes, his triple forte). His unwavering instinct is never to rush or apologize for the length of a piece but rather to settle in, let the music make its own powerful argument and trust the listener to stick with it. The trick is not to let the energy diffuse, and on Friday night, the thread never slackened for a second. 


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