The Lansing Symphony Orchestra closes out its season this week with a rare Thursday night performance. WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with music director Timothy Muffitt about the program, which features piano soloist Charlie Albright.
TIMOTHY MUFFITT: Well, Charlie came to us through the Gilmore Festival. And the Gilmore is one of the most highly regarded competitions in the world. It’s unusual in that it’s a non-competition competition.
MELISSA BENMARK: How’s that?
MUFFITT: So, unlike, for example, the Cliburn, where everyone comes together and they have a big playoff, the Gilmore covertly checks out people who have been recommended to them across the country. They secretly go in and hear concerts and live performances, and, therefore, see people in their actual element. And so as a result, the quality of the people they identify is extraordinarily high. But most importantly, you know, here’s a Michigan festival, and we are the capital city orchestra—it’s just really exciting to have this partnership with them.
BENMARK: I noticed that the whole program is ballet music of one sort or another. Which, I had not realized that the “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” had been choreographed by Michel Fokine, who’s the same guy that choreographed the Stravinsky “Petroushka,” which is the other thing on the program. Did you mean to have an all-dance program, and what is it like to conduct dance, music that’s specifically written for dance?
MUFFITT: One of the really critical moments in my career was the first time I conducted an extended run of “The Nutcracker.” Of course, I knew “The Nutcracker,” but, I mean, to live with it where you’re coming in and conducting it every night for several nights. I knew Tchaikovsky through the symphonies. But after becoming so intimate with the ballet music, it changed how I heard the symphonies. And Stravinsky really is best known as a ballet composer, even though all of his ballets are really common in the concert hall.
And, as we approach this music as performers, we have to keep in mind that it is music that’s telling a story. The characters and the drama of the music really need to come to life. One of the really great things about this program is, it looks at Stravinsky’s roots, the two primary tap roots of what created Stravinsky. The music of Ravel and Debussy, and then of course that strong Russian tradition, here represented by Rachmaninoff. And both of those threads run through “Petrushka.”
“Petrushka” is a highly Russian score. It has a lot of Russian folk reference and things that sound like folk tunes, but then it has that color and polish and life that comes out of the French school, of which Stravinsky was very familiar.
BENMARK: I was reading through the synopsis and it sounds like, you know, for anybody like me who’s always been a little bit uneasy with clowns, and finding them to be a little bit scary, this is not going to help you any!
MUFFITT: No, this, uh…there’s some nasty puppets in this one. That’s for sure.
BENMARK: The Rachmaninoff is such a well-known tune in the concert hall.
BENMARK: What’s your approach with something that’s as well-known and even as "hummable" as this?
MUFFITT: Sure. Because it’s a concerto, this is a real collaborative effort, so a lot of what I do will be what Charlie feeds me. The interaction. I mean, that’s one of the beautiful things about this kind of collaboration is, I’m anxious to hear what our soloist is going to bring to the piece, too.
BENMARK: You make it sound like jazz.
MUFFITT: It’s very much like that. I mean, accompanying, whether you are conducting an orchestra and it’s a concerto, or whether you’re playing a sonata for piano and violin, or any kind of collaborative element, is full of give and take. In the best-case scenarios, which is what we always strive for, something new is created that is greater than the sum of the parts, that each collaborator brings his or her own ideas and we find a way to make them all work together.