In Sync with the Lansing Symphony

“I remember how people nodded their heads and said ‘Yes, I know that,’ when they heard us perform one of Brahams' Hungarian dances,” says Catherine Guarino of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra.

“Lots of people don’t realize how much classical music pervades their lives."

For Guarino, who is the director of communications and ticket sales for the symphony, such recognition is just the beginning of what she hopes is a long relationship between Lansing residents and their hometown, mid-size orchestra.

“The symphony is a great way to network,” she says. “It’s a cultural experience that makes you well-rounded, and it’s a wonderful place to come and be seen.”

Brian Lefler, a 40-something local bank executive who joined the symphony board two years ago, agrees. “I’d like to see the symphony be part of the vocabulary of professionals and anyone in this community,” he says.

Changing Impressions

Sarah Harris quickly admits her impressions changed from the moment the curtain lifted on Lansing’s 80-piece symphony orchestra, led by Timothy Muffitt.

It wasn’t, says the19-year-old Holt, MI, native, just a place where people wore pearls and kept their noses in the air.

“I actually found it to be an amazing experience—culturally, historically, emotionally,” says Harris of the early fall concert. “You’re hearing something that so many people have heard, and you’re hearing it live, with a new interpretation. You become a link in a chain that’s passing something on.”

Harris says she rounded up her boyfriend, her sister and her boyfriend, and then her parents for a night on the town—starting with the symphony’s season opener.

“We had a blast,” says Harris of the concert that featured the music of Brahams, Falla and Ravel. “It’s a connection now that we’ll always have.”

Harris represents the young demographic the Lansing Symphony hopes to attract by diversifying the season’s line-up, enhancing electronic communication, and keeping tickets affordable.

Part of Guarino's job with the symphony is to expose more community members to a diversity of masterpieces—including classical, pop and jazz.

"Begin your Journey is an invitation,” Guarino says, revealing the symphony’s theme for the new 17-performance season. “We’re working hard to make our performances accessible to all walks of life and all incomes—and break that perception of a symphony being a high-society evening for the wealthy and well-to-do.”

“We want to continue to reach a new subscriber base,” says Guarino. “Young professionals and students are the future. We hope to have them as subscribers now, as well as 20 years from now.”

Newly established electronic forums encourage fans to engage in social networking and information exchange around the 79-year-old orchestra. Users can establish Facebook pages off the symphony’s revamped Web site, or view the profiles of musicians and other patrons.

Younger audiences and those with tight budgets will enjoy the range of ticket prices and seating in premier venues like the MSU Wharton Center.

“There’s all different levels, but you can go for as little as $10,” says Harris. “If you think about it, that’s the price of a movie and a bucket of popcorn.”

The 2008-2009 performance roster consists of classical and contemporary masterpieces, pop and big bands, sacred music, and family concerts at holidays. Symphony goers can hear full-orchestra performances at the Wharton Center, as well as more intimate chamber concerts in festival or smaller settings.

Anyone who regards a symphony experience as exclusively top hat and tails will be surprised by several of this season’s offerings.

One chamber concert in April, for instance, will feature seven musicians, with the principal bassoonist dressed in an Elvis suit. Actors from the Lansing Boarshead Theater will also add dimension to the performance of Michael Daughtery’s “Dead Elvis.”

“There’s something for everybody,” says Guarino of the season that runs through May. “We feel that when people hear things they may have heard before, it can make it easier for them to get into it. But it goes the other way, too. If they haven’t heard it, they’ll want to once they’re there.”

Passing the Baton

Three years ago, Timothy Muffitt was handed the baton and stepped up as the new music director for the Lansing Symphony.

Selected after an extensive search of more than 150 applicants, Muffitt is a strong proponent of community arts education, as well as a firm believer in the accessibility of classical music.

“We’re in the inspiration business,” says Muffitt, who has appeared with leading orchestras around the country, and worked with prominent composers and musicians like Yo Yo Ma, Van Cliburn, Itzhak Perlman and John Cage. “People come to us for horizon broadening, for escape. They come to us for a chance to see the world in a different way.”

When asked, Muffitt says he’s never felt symphonic music was inaccessible or lofty, but that there’s still some work to be done to break that impression.

“There’s a lot of popular cross-over,” he says, mentioning a commercial in which Elvis Costello talks about Beethoven while riding in a Lexus. “It’s just a matter of presenting the music to those who may have never thought of it as something that could really excite.”

Indeed, in his heyday Franz Joseph Haydn wrote for parties. So did Mozart. And today, classical music continues to weave itself into every part of our life, from theme songs for cartoons and movies to the occasional commercial.

Muffitt says the advent of the symphony’s pop series is on the forefront of breaking the cultural divide. Performance of Latin rhythms, family-focused holiday medleys, and Broadway love songs around Valentine’s Day can tap into broader segments of Greater Lansing, he says, by offering a night or afternoon out at an affordable cost.

“Familiarity has a lot to do with it,” he says, recalling last’s year’s sold out performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” a classical piece that’s appeared in hundreds of commercials, including those pitching Gatorade.

“In its day, classical music was a form of popular music, often written for concert consumption and background music at parties. Composers recognized that music can serve many functions. That hasn’t changed much today.”

Beyond the Sound

Diversifying performances is just one way the symphony is regenerating its base. Outreach programs also abound.

Adults can attend guest lectures before some performances. Ensembles visit area classrooms. Special workshops and opportunities to perform onstage with the full orchestra are also offered.

“These tough economic times present a way for us to think of how we can increase participation in all parts of our community," says boardmember Brian Lefler. "The symphony is one of those opportunities, right in your own backyard.”

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To set up a Lansing Symphony Facebook account, buy tickets, or volunteer, click here.  Interested symphony-goers can also call 517-487-5001 or sign up for a mailing list.

Ann Kammerer lives in East Lansing. She has written about area businesses, non-profits and people making news for a variety of local and regional magazines. 

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Elinore Morin playing a Viola

Dessislava Nenova playing Cello

Timothy Muffitt in Wharton's Great Hall

Lansing Symphony Orchestra

Gretchen Morse playing an Oboe

Timothy Muffitt

All Photographs © Dave TrumpieAll Photographs © Dave Trumpie
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