LSO Preview: Masterworks 3

Jan 6, 2012

EAST LANSING, MI (WKAR) - WKAR's Melissa Benmark spoke with Lansing Symphony Orchestra conductor Timothy Muffitt to preview the next MasterWorks concert. They began by talking about "Rounds for String Orchestra" by David Diamond.

TIMOTHY MUFFITT: He's a 20th century Romantic in that, you know, this is still tonal music, not to say it's not without a 20th century harmonic language, which it is, but this is an extension of Romanticism into the 20th century, with a specifically American stamp on it.

MELISSA BENMARK: And then you move on to the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto. We have a soloist with roots in Okemos, Felix Wang. Talk a little about the concerto and working with the soloist, if you would.

MUFFITT: Well, you know, we love to seek out our local talent that's gone on and done great things, and Felix is certainly in that category. In fact, he won, many, many years ago, won the Lansing Symphony's Young Artist Competition. And then he's gone on and really had a terrific career as a chamber musician, soloist and teacher.

And this is a concerto that the Lansing Symphony hasn't played for many, many years, and it's just really an extraordinarily beautiful piece of music. It's a concise and focused work from the heart of the Romantic concerto repertoire. It's just really a terrific piece.

BENMARK: Was Saint-Saens a cellist? He seems to have a real affinity for the cello with things like "The Swan" from "Carnival of the Animals."

MUFFITT: That's a good question. Not to my knowledge. He was a keyboard player. He was an organist and pianist. He was just a very inspired musician, and, I think, recognized the specific qualities of instruments.

And he was, one of, you know, along those lines, he was one of the first, we always think of the French composers as the great colorists--the composers who really explored combinations of instruments and colors and exploited the specific characteristics of an instrument.

And I think that Saint-Saens was one of those composers who really had an affinity for the inherent qualities of any given instrument.

BENMARK: And then the major, and we do mean major, work on the program is Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony, one of the greatest symphonic works of all time, and one that Beethoven work with a fair amount of inspiration and disappointment and frustration, depending on what stage he was in. What's it like to take on something that big?

MUFFITT: You know, what I love about it is the avant garde element. I mean, this was--

BENMARK: Beethoven?

MUFFITT: By all means. This was the "Sacre du printemps" of 1803. That audience had never even conceived that music could be anything remotely like this. Both in its length, and its depth, its harmonic language, its high use of dissonance, you know, expressive dissonance and power. And it's very easy for today's listener, who has already experienced Wagner, and Mahler, and Bruckner, to hear the "Eroica" in that vein.

BENMARK: Backwards-looking.

MUFFITT: Right. But if you put on your powdered wig, and you sit down and hear this as though you were about to hear a Haydn symphony, it's absolutely shocking music. Now, of course, contemporary audiences hear it as, there's nothing shocking about it.

BENMARK: Our mind softens it because we've heard other things.

MUFFITT: Right. Even the most conservative listener, who might find "Appalachian Spring" to be difficult to digest, would hear "Eroica" and say, "This is all perfectly accessible music." But to the audience of the day, this is a piece that was just absolutely outrageous.

BENMARK: Do we know how it was received?

MUFFITT: Not well.

BENMARK: Really?

MUFFITT: Yeah. And it's interesting. They were perplexed by it. Because nothing approached the length, and depth, and profundity of the Third Symphony. I'm sure you've read many of those contemporary accounts of all of Beethoven's Symphonies. That the Ninth Symphony sounded like, you know, one of my favorites was, "It sounded like the upsetting of a bag of nails." And, or it was---

BENMARK: I don't think I've heard that one.

MUFFITT: Right. Another contemporary critic of the Ninth Symphony said that "it was a hideous monster that refused to die." And now, of course, we think it's the most glorious music ever.