The Lansing Symphony Orchestra is beginning its 2012-2013 season with a celebration of pianist Ralph Votapek. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with LSO music director and conductor Timothy Muffitt about the program.
TIMOTHY MUFFITT: This is a real celebratory program in many ways—the start of the season, and then the celebration of Ralph Votapek as an artist, and his accomplishments. And so, we wanted to kick things off with a piece of music that was celebratory in nature and this was about the top of the heap in terms of that kind of work.
“Millennium Canons” is a work by a composer named Kevin Puts. And Kevin is quickly becoming one of the most important composers of his generation—American composers, certainly, of his generation. He just won the Pulitzer Prize this year for an opera he wrote. This is a work that is really designed just to create a festive tone. These are canons in terms of the musical structure rather than artillery--
MELISSA BENMARK: I was going to ask you about that. Yes, you’ve got to have special clearance for that in Wharton, I would think.
MUFFITT: Right. And it’s really a brilliant set of, in the musical world, a canon is when one voice begins and then the second voice follows in exact imitation. So that’s the basic texture of it. But it’s highly fanfare-oriented and there’s not a moment of angst in any of it. It’s just all very upbeat, and I think the audience will really love it.
BENMARK: Ralph Votapek…a long time internationally-known pianist and locally-known pianist and he’s doing two concertos which seems to me like doing two marathons. Talk a little bit about the two piano concertos he’s going to be doing.
MUFFITT: It is really exciting, and, you know, Ralph is one of these musicians that has been so generous to the community over the years. There are many artists of his caliber that would say no a lot more than he has ever done, and has just been so generous with his artistry throughout the state of Michigan. Really, I’m sure that he was probably the first world-class pianist I ever heard play live as a kid. And that was because he was willing to travel the state and that was because he was willing to travel the state and go to small towns. And so, the reason we’re celebrating Ralph is that he has celebrated music with us through his whole career and will continue to do so.
This program is celebrating the 50th anniversary of him winning the Van Cliburn competition.
BENMARK: The first one, right?
MUFFITT: The first one. He set the bar really high for Cliburn. So we’re going to play the two works he played as part of that competition, the two concertos he played as part of that competition. And it is a marathon, and it’s a great marathon, too.
The Beethoven, the Fourth Concerto is something of the outlier of the Beethoven concerti, not just the piano concerti but also the Violin Concerto and the Triple Concerto. This work to me is a different side of Beethoven. We see a different side of Beethoven in the Fourth Concerto.
BENMARK: What side of Beethoven do you think it represents?
MUFFITT: Well, I think it takes a look at the softer side of Beethoven. You know, just comparing it to the concerti that are on either side—the Third Piano Concerto is the c minor concerto, and it’s exactly what we would expect from Beethoven in c minor. And then the Emperor Concerto, on the other half, again falls very much in line with—it’s extraordinary, it’s a masterpiece, but it falls very much in line with Beethovenian expectations. But this work, I think, is just full of the kind of musical moments that make you sit up and take notice, especially given the composer. The character of it, the way it’s structured, the harmonic shifts…I think Beethoven found a new path to go on this work, and it’s a great one. I always enjoy this piece.
BENMARK: And then the Prokofiev, by way of contrast.
MUFFITT: Right. Well, this is Prokofiev’s most popular piano concerto. I have to say, the end of the first movement is some of the most exhilarating music anyone’s ever written for anything. The energy that is unleashed at the end of the first movement is really extraordinary. But then it goes on with a lot of wonderful character in this music. This also is a real masterpiece, and a very different kind of concerto than the Beethoven, and a beautiful compliment.