LSO Preview: Muffitt Talks About MasterWorks II

Oct 5, 2012

The Lansing Symphony Orchestra plays its second concert of the season over the weekend at Wharton Center. Music Director and Conductor Timothy Muffitt spoke with WKAR's Melissa Benmark about the performance, starting with Mendelssohn's Overture, "Fingal's Cave."

TIMOTHY MUFFITT: It’s definitely program music, you know? And in the grand scheme of things, that’s what these two concert overtures of Mendelssohn, this one and the “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage” are really kind of significant in the development of program music because they were some of the first works—kind of on the heels of the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony—first kind of stand-alone works that had a programmatic idea to them. Before that we have to go all the way back to the Vivaldi “Four Seasons” to find something…

MELISSA BENMARK: Right, the barking dog…

MUFFITT: Right. And there’s less concrete musical imitation and more just of an atmospheric thing. I’ve always found this “Fingal’s Cave” Overture to be just a gem of a piece of music. It’s one of those works where everything is where it needs to be. You know, when Mendelssohn was inspired, he was incredible. When he was on, when the Muse was with him, he wrote some really extraordinary music and this is one of them.

BENMARK: Then we have a bassoon concerto by Mozart, and the bassoon…one of those instruments that, at its darkest can sound a little funereal, and at its lightest can sound almost chuckling. How do those figure in to the Mozart concerto? What mood is he in for this?

MUFFITT: Sure. Well, Mozart clearly recognized the remarkable range of expressive capabilities of the bassoon. And a lot of the associations we have now of the bassoon as often the jester, came about thanks to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” but I think in Mozart’s day it was just a lovely tenor woodwind instrument that was capable of great facility and elegance and a little bit of joviality, but also could sing a beautiful aria. Which is the second movement. The second movement is lifted from one of his opera arias. And the instrument just sings beautifully in that.

BENMARK: So then we have an intermission and then we have the Shostakovich Tenth. And in talking to various musical folks about Shostakovich over the last few years, when I try to do research for it, the one thing I keep finding is, everybody wants to say that Shostakovich’s music is political one way or the other. And there are about twenty different versions of, for instance, is the second movement supposed to be about Stalin or not about Stalin, or did he write it before Stalin or after Stalin? There seems to be—and I don’t know that you can dismiss that, he’s a very political composer—but I don’t know that that’s the entirety of understanding his music, either. When you’re a approaching anything by Shostakovich but especially the Tenth, where do you go with that?

MUFFITT: That’s a great question. There have been enormous barrels of the proverbial ink spilled on the meaning of Shostakovich’s music. And the other thing that complicates it, too, is that he would often contradict himself.

BENMARK: Right. As he got older there were different versions.

MUFFITT: Right. A work means this, or it doesn’t mean anything. The great thing is that Shostakovich’s music is remarkably clear in its intent. And so, even the great enigma, the Fifth Symphony, is the greatest enigma, because, here’s a piece given the subtitle of “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism.” Now, come on.

BENMARK: That’s a little loaded.

MUFFITT: There’s already, with that, there’s this obvious sarcastic tone to it. Yet it is one of his most triumphant outpourings. And so, as the performer, we have to say, “Well, is he saying, ‘Okay, you want joyous music, here you go?’ And here it is.” Or is it a sincere statement? So, the one thing I started with was that, to the performer, there’s something crystal clear about how to play Shostakovich. And aside from nuances, the intent of the music is very clear as pure, absolute music. And then I think it’s up to the listener.