The Lansing Symphony Orchestra played its final concert of the season last week at MSU’s Wharton Center. Music director Timothy Muffitt took a few minutes to speak with WKAR’s Melissa Benmark about the lineup for next season. One of the concerts they talked about was built around the story of composer Antonin Dvorak’s visit to America.
TIMOTHY MUFFITT: The basis of this program goes back to the now-legendary visit of Dvorak to the United States, where, back in the day, there was a wealthy patron in New York who wanted to kind of give something of a jump start to American composers. And so her idea was to bring the most famous composer in Europe over to the United States to teach the young and developing American composers.
What made Dvorak great was the way he found his nationalistic voice, and expressed it, and created a Bohemian voice in music. And he was also adaptable enough to come to this country and recognize that this country’s indigenous musics…paraphrasing his works, basically he said, the heart and soul of American music will be found in the music of the African American and the Native American.
And so that’s what this program is about. Brian Gaber’s work, “Ancestral Waters,” is unlike any other piece I’ve ever heard. It’s a hybrid jazz and symphonic work that moves from that same sort of mid-20th century, conservative, tonal, that kind of sense of harmony…and then it imperceptibly morphs into a full-blown jazz element, with bass and drums and improvised solo on electric guitar. And then it brings us back into a symphonic world without ever being incongruous.
It’s really quite remarkable. And all of this is with a mezzo-soprano solo. So it’s really an extraordinary work. I know that the audience is just going to eat this one up because it’s very, very special. And Allison Sanders is an extraordinary mezzo who’s going to really knock this one out of the park. So, that’s a program of American music, and capping it all off with the Dvorak “New World” symphony, which in a way started all this.
MELISSA BENMARK: In September, you have Ralph Votapek, the pianist, playing not one but two piano concertos in a show. And he’s celebrating the 50th anniversary of his Van Cliburn gold medal. Is it just me, or is two piano concertos pretty darn athletic for one show?
MUFFITT: It’s huge! And this was Ralph’s idea, I’ll tell you!
BENMARK: Not your fault.
MUFFITT: No, this, I’m excited about it. I mean, these are the two works that he played in the Cliburn competition.
BENMARK: Oh, no kidding?
MUFFITT: And so, that’s why they’re paired together here. And they also work together beautifully. I can’t wait to hear Ralph play. I know it’s going to be just wonderful.
BENMARK: There’s a very geographical program with the “London” Symphony by Haydn, and a “German Requiem” by Brahms, and then the next one out after the holiday break, I’m not familiar with the Respighi, “Brazilian Impressions.” I always think of him—you know, we play “Ancient Airs and Dances,” I mean, I don’t think we’d have classical radio if it wasn’t for Respighi’s “Ancient Airs and Dances.” But I don’t know the “Brazilian Impressions” at all. What’s your take on those?
MUFFITT: This is one of those pieces that, funny you should mention that, because after people hear this, they’re going to say, “Why isn’t that piece played more often?” The title says it all, frankly. I mean, if you know the title of the work, you know what it’s going to sound like.
Now, I’ll tell you that the one movement you won’t know what it’s going to sound like is the middle one, which is called Butantan. And as I was studying this piece, I noticed some unusual expressive markings in the score. You know, typically composers will write “lively,” or “cantabile,” meaning ‘to sing,’ or “espressivo,” ‘play expressively.’ And under this really unusual bassoon and bass clarinet—it’s a trio of two bassoons and bass clarinet—he writes in “creeping” in Italian. I can’t remember the Italian word right now, but the translation was for “creeping.” After studying this piece for a while, I said, “This must be, there’s something else going on.”
BENMARK: You’re missing something.
MUFFITT: I’m missing something. Because it’s really unusual music. And I asked a friend of mine who’s Brazilian, “What’s going on in Butantan?” I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly. And she said, “Nothing. It’s just this little town out in the middle of nowhere, and the only thing that’s there is this big reptile colony.”
BENMARK: Hence the ‘creeping’ of the reptiles!
MUFFITT: The Butantan Institute is one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of reptiles. And specifically, they have a huge collection of preserved, as in, dead, and then they also have a large collection of living, reptiles. And maybe scorpions and spiders, too, I don’t remember. But they’ve done a lot of research in venom, and a lot of medical research from the venom of these animals. There was a tragic fire in 2010 that burned down much of the institute. Fortunately, none of the living creatures were hurt, but they did lose a lot of the preserved specimens. So, that was kind of an interesting realization. It was fun. But “Brazilian Impressions” will be, that’s the sleeper hit of the season.