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LSO Preview: Masterworks 1

By Melissa Ingells, WKAR News


EAST LANSING, MI – The Lansing Symphony Orchestra is opening its concert season at Wharton Center. WKAR's Melissa Ingells spoke with LSO conductor Timothy Muffitt about the program, which includes a soloist from a few seasons back returning to the stage, Giora Schmidt.

TIMOTHY MUFFITT: We're really thrilled to be bringing Giora Schmidt back with us. He played the Barber Concerto with us, season before last. And this is just one of the great emerging talents on the scene right now. The Beethoven Violin Concerto is completely an integration of soloist and orchestra like the Brahms Piano Concertos and like many of the great, great concertos, where it takes advantage of both performing bodies and puts them together in concert.

MELISSA INGELLS: You also have the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, an opportunity for folks to hear Wharton Center's organ if they have not.

MUFFITT: Well you know, it is one of the great digital organs out there. And we've used it in the past in kind of an auxiliary role, in a supportive role, in the "Pines of Rome" and in other pieces that have, where the organ is a supportive part of the orchestra--

INGELLS: I guess it must be, because I didn't even realize it was in that one!

MUFFITT: Right, yes. But we've not used it in this kind of more soloistic function where it is now and I'm excited to use the instrument that way.

INGELLS: The piece on here that folks are perhaps least likely to know is "Blue Cathedral" by Higdon. Tell me what's that all about.

MUFFITT: Well, Jennifer Higdon is one of the most important composers of her generation, one of the most frequently performed living American composers today. And virtually all the major orchestras have performed her works, and "Blue Cathedral" is one of the greatest hits of classical music right now. And for great reason it is immediately appealing. But it also has that lasting quality that a great work of art does.

There is a beautiful sense of space and time in this piece. It's a lush and beautiful work, very prominent, free-floating wind solos. There's a motif for two solo violas and two solo cellos solo lines that weave their way through the piece. It all builds to a really joyous explosion in the brass of high-energy, exciting music, and then comes back to the way it began, with this dialogue of solo lines between flute and clarinet.

Some of the interesting coloristic effects are, at the end of the piece, she writes for tuned glass goblets.

INGELLS: Oh, really?

MUFFITT: So the horn section and the trombone and tuba, the low brass and the horns, are playing glass goblets tuned to C, D, G and A. And so there's this sustained ringing tone of very consonant sound that comes from the back of the orchestra.

And then also, she writes for Chinese reflex bells, which are small metal balls with something inside. Imagine a tiny maraca made of silver with silver beads inside. And so it's this really beautiful tone that, the instrument is shaken the way you would shake a maraca, but the sound is a very light ringing quality. And these bells are passed throughout the orchestra, so about forty members of the orchestra play them, coming in at various times.

Between the goblets ringing these beautiful, sustained tones, and the bells, there's this backdrop for this beautiful interplay between clarinet and flute. And really, it's just a very powerful work and I think there's a reason it's being played everywhere.

INGELLS: It sounds extremely cool.

MUFFITT: It's extremely cool!

INGELLS: I'm trying to imagine you doing an internet search for "tuned water goblets."

MUFFITT: Well, you know, they just come out of the kitchen cupboard.

INGELLS: Really? So, you just found some that would make that, and...

MUFFITT: Well, we got, actually, the, our principal percussionist, Gwen, is on the faculty of Michigan State, and she happened to have some tuned goblets because it's an instrument that shows up not infrequently. Joseph Schwantner uses it in many of his works.

INGELLS: Well, I've heard glass harmonica, but I didn't realize that, just like free-form goblets...

MUFFITT: Yeah. That's what, these are basically isolated notes from the glass harmonica. In a sense. It's played the same way, with a finger around the rim of the glass, and so it has that same tone to it. But when I've done the piece before, you know, literally gone to friends and neighbors, and the higher the quality of the goblet, the better the tone. And so, you know, then there are those they're reluctant to lend out and the ones they're not reluctant to lend.

INGELLS: Right. I'm not giving you my grandmother's goblet to sit on the stage of Wharton Center.

MUFFITT: Right. It's interesting, you have to find instruments that can be tuned to the right pitch, and you tune it by the amount of water you put in. But because of the nature of the overtone series of any resonating object, not every glass can produce the tones that you need. And it might produce notes above and notes below the tone you need, but it may not actually produce that specific note, just because of the physical properties of it. So there is a little bit of a challenge to find instruments that will produce exactly the right tone in the right register.

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