Timothy Muffitt

Timothy Muffitt

Conductor

Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra & Lansing Symphony Orchestra

 

REVIEWS & PUBLISHED COMMENTARY

“The masterpiece here [on a recent Sono Luminus recording], of course, is the Berg, which sounds as impassioned, conflicted and intricately layered as ever. Nothing appears to cause anxiety for the Baton Rouge musicians, who dispatch the score’s rhythmic and expressive challenges with handsome aplomb ... and the winds perform with cohesive and precise assurance under conductor Timothy Muffitt.” ~~Gramophone Magazine

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On a hot afternoon last August, I stopped into a juice bar for a smoothie. Mango, pineapple, strawberry — it was sweet as a milkshake, only better. As I gulped it down, I saw a strange smile on the server’s face.

“You’d never know there was kale in it,” she said.

“Pfffah — hey,” I thought. But it was too late to spew. I was healthier and couldn’t take it back.

After Saturday’s Lansing Symphony concert, I pictured maestro Timothy Muffitt, kicking back with his own drink of choice, wearing that same grin on his face.

Over the past five years, Muffitt has excelled at keeping butts in seats while stretching the brains above them. With each subscription concert, he has found a way to expand Lansing’s classical music experience without sending the squeamish into the streets screaming for Andre Rieu.

Saturday night, he took the art of the gentle push to new heights with a breathtaking reading of Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s spiky, mysterious harp concerto.

Despite the in-and-out Latin rhythms and chameleon-like flushes of orchestral color, this was a study in nervous tension and profound silences — maybe the most dissonant, unorthodox and challenging music in Muffitt’s five-year tenure as music director, Bartok included.

To help him put it over, the maestro enlisted another deceptively pleasing envelope-pusher, harpist Yolanda Kondonassis.

From the first bars, harpist and orchestra interlocked like the thorax and abdomen of a wasp, whipping through wicked cross-rhythms and sudden turnarounds with hymenopteran timing.

Their destination wasn’t a garden, however, but a post-modern cityscape of back alleys and neon towers, a dense hive of humanity where a tango, a tryst or a knife fight could break out any second.

It’s exhilarating to hear classical music reach past the neatly tucked corners of Mozart and into the chaotic pulsations of real life. This was precision-tooled, carefully choreographed disorder, not far from the world of Charles Ives. When a man laughed loudly in the Wharton Center lobby during the first movement, the outburst mixed right in with the concerto’s incipient madness.

People think of a harpist flinging pretty notes like strings of pearls, but, to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in “Reservoir Dogs,” that was some other harpist on some other job.

Crouched in a red zone of concentration, Kondonassis played with the authority and focus of an oracle, giving every note an almost unbearable weight. Her interaction with the orchestra rippled with a protean sensitivity worlds away from the usual soloist-versus-symphony huffing and puffing.

One minute she was trading tuh-booms with the timpani; the next minute her terse statements dissolved in woodwind mist. In the second movement, she sustained a noble melody fit for a trumpet. She bandied plinks and doinks with a small army of percussionists like a grandmaster playing chess with several opponents at once.

Here and throughout the concerto, Kondonassis seemed to embody the human search for meaning. The orchestral tumult didn’t make it easy, but even when she was left alone, she had to fight herself. After all, this is an age of neuroses.

When Kondonassis finally got to play glissandos in the third movement, they were dissonant and aggressive, like voices that wouldn’t get out of her head. Her right hand kept on circling like a buzzard, daring her left hand to focus and finish playing. Finally, the tumult subsided to let Kondonassis seek the truth by herself, and the quiet in the hall was almost stifling. The concerto was completely successful, as technical achievement, philosophy, psychodrama and sonic tonic.

After the break, Kondonassis and the symphony came back to blend a real smoothie of a piece, a wistful and sparkling set of dances by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy. After the astringent Ginastera, Debussy gave Kondonassis the chance to massage a more conventional grace and beauty from her instrument, but she didn’t dial down her discipline and precision. After a standing ovation, Kondonassis followed with a spellbinding solo encore: “Chanson dans la nuit” by Carlos Salzedo.

After the delicate dance with Kondonassis was done, Ottorino Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the evening’s finale, gave Muffitt and the orchestra a chance to overwhelm by sheer force. The descent into the Roman catacombs, with low horns and vibrating gongs, brought up goosebumps, aided further by the sub-woofing vibrations of an electronic organ. In the dreamy pastoral bit that followed, Emmanuel Toledo, the symphony’s new principal clarinetist, played a long, heartbreaking solo with precision and heart.

But who ever ended a symphony concert with a dreamy clarinet solo? No, the hammer must come down, and down it came. The finale was written to evoke Roman legions as they march from the far distance, swirled in the rosy mist of dawn, to stomp your face. Muffitt and crew turned this nasty prospect into masochist heaven, wrapped in a nimbus of symphonic glory. No juggernaut was ever so much fun, right down to the auxiliary legions of flugelhorns and euphoniums blasting away from the wings.

Besides —after drinking down that Ginastera, kale and all, we were strong enough to take any pounding. ~~ The City Pulse (Lansing), 1/12/11

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"I couldn’t have had more fun in my first concert of the season as I had with Maestro Timothy Muffitt and the Lansing Symphony Orchestra... It was a Spanish-themed program, with my participation being deFalla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, really more of a collaborative work for piano and orchestra than a warhorse/showpiece. It was fantastic to have such simpatico with Tim and such responsiveness, color and virtuosity from the orchestra. A great way to start the season. ~~ Christopher O'Reilly, pianist from his blog of September 28, 2009

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"This was my first time being a season ticket holder but certainly won't be the last! And I don't really have a question; rather a HUGE EMPHATIC THANK YOU for the dedication and hard work that you, the BRSO and the Chorus put into each musical masterpiece that you absolutely bring to life! Last night's performances of Chichester Psalms and The Planets gave me goose bumps just like the ones you get when you're a Tiger Band member playing "Pre-Game" for the first time in front of 92,000+ screaming fans! This town (scratch that -- THIS STATE) is so fortunate to have such a high caliber orchestra!  ~~ J.M., Baton Rouge (from the Q/A section of BRSO webpage)

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Among Muffitt’s many accomplishments as music director [of the Lansing Symphony Orchestra] — perhaps the most important — is that he has definitively turned the symphony’s musical face toward the audience. Even when the going got tough, there wasn’t a moment when it seemed as if the musicians were up there to gratify themselves or work out some abstract task. They kept up the emotional intensity, never lost sight of the music’s inner logic and brought the listeners right with them through all 72 minutes [of Mahler's Fifth Symphony]. ~~ The City Pulse (Lansing), 05/06/09

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SYMPHONY'S PERFORMANCE IMPRESSES LEAGUE OFFICIAL
"I've Heard a lot of orchestras over this country, and I've only heard two orchestras in this general budget range that really play at a high level - Baton Rouge and West Virginia' said Henry Fogel, president and CEO of the American Symphony Orchestra League.

Fogel's praise came after he attended the Tuesday concert featuring world renowned soprano Kirk Te Kanawa as soloist. 'I could also say that I've heard orchestras with much bigger budgets and in bigger cities that don't play as well' he added with a chuckle. He said the orchestra played difficult music and handled accompaniment of the singer well. 'Hanging in there with a singer is always hard. I was very, very taken with how well they did it. I loved Muffitt's conducting. He whipped up a hell of a frenzy in the Saint Saens' Fogel laughed. 'They did that with only three rehersals' interjected executive director JL Nave.

Fogel said he was sitting next to a man at the concert who clearly was from out of town, but agreed wholeheartedly with that opinion. [Fogel] is touring the country visiting orchestras to find out what their needs are and to help with solutions to their problems. 'I'm on an everlasting tour. When I took this job, I would only accept it if I could spend half of my time visiting orchestras. We are a service organization for 900 American orchestras - 350 professional, the rest youth, college and non-professional orchestras. A service organization that is supposed to serve orchestras cannot do that from an office in New York.'

Fogel said the biggest part of his job is to listen, to find out what musicians, boards and staff need and help them find out how to get it. The number one need he has discovered on this trip is that orchestra boards want more training. 'They want to know just what their responsibility is, to be sure what is appropriate. We have established leadership academies around the counrty, and we are going to emphasize board training more and more.'

"The second thing he is emphasizing is communication between orchestras. 'This field is so diverse, and the country is so big I find part of our role as a league is to capture good ideas and disseminate them' he said. He mentioned the success of the Te Kanawa concert, saying 'This is not a new idea but you're executing it better than most. Many costs are underwritten, clearly providing a solid base for the orchestra. It has the feeling it's a really special eveining.'

Fogel praised the orchestra and the community for bringing the orchestra back from the brink of financial disaster by cutting costs, reducing staff and taking salary cuts. 'It's obvious that things are in pretty great shape here. The hardest thing is getting out of the dumps in a down time.' he said.

One of the major problems for American community orchestras is that people in this country do not understand how much good music is made outside major cities and abroad. 'They believe European orchestras are naturally better' he said. I know that if I presented a second line European orchestra, such as the Mannheim, and the Baton Rouge Symphony, the Mannheim would sell out but not Baton Rouge. I've heard the Mannheim and it's not nearly as good as the Baton Rouge. We have to find a way to let people know what we have in this country."   ~~ Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 9/19/04

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BRSO DOES JUSTICE TO GEMS OF CLASSIC SYMPHONIC REPERTOIRE
"The third of this season’s Baton Rouge Symphony Entergy Masterworks concerts lived up to the series title.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C minor and Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 in D minor are gems of the symphonic repertoire. Thursday evening’s concert at the Centroplex Theatre served as a vivid reminder of why the two works are so highly regarded.

The concert also featured “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) a lesser-known piece by Johannes Brahms performed with the Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus.

Dvorak’s Symphony No. 7 put the orchestra and conductor Timothy Muffitt to work. The composer fully employs his players throughout a supremely dramatic score. A dark piece touched by periodic episodes of light, this stormy composition received another of Muffitt and the orchestra’s powerful performances.

The broad sweep of the first movement ranged from rumbling timpani and percussive blasts of horns to tranquil, trilling flute. Dvorak used the flute, as the program notes conveniently explained, to re-create bird calls. But given the volatile nature of Symphony No. 7, birds had better seek shelter from Dvorak’s symphonic hailstorms.

Dvorak spreads his dark melodies smoothly through strings and woodwinds in the slower second movement. Entrusted with one of these melodies, the orchestra’s cello section, particularly, showed its ensemble sheen. Also effective were delicate final chords in the strings, proving strength and volume are just one element in Dvorak’s rich scheme.

Symphony No. 7’s dancelike third movement pulled fire from the orchestra, an expressive attribute one can seemingly expect when the demonstrative Muffitt’s at the podium.

LSU faculty member Jennifer Hayghe was Thursday’s guest soloist for a vivacious performance of Mozart’s popular Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major. Hayghe---a former child prodigy who attended the United States’ elite music school Juilliard---glided through Mozart’s scale-filled piano score as if it were second nature to her. Despite the orchestral accompaniment and her own left-hand keyboard work, she never failed to project and articulate Mozart’s cheery tunes. All the while, Muffitt and the orchestra matched the soloist’s spirit and precision. And the crowd loved it.

Brahms’ solemn “Schicksalslied” (Song of Destiny) was the evening’s dark-horse selection. The Baton Rouge Symphony Chorus had its stirring moments in this dark, seldom-heard piece."  ~~ Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 11/9/02

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"Muffitt made the music move with an irresistable sweep."  ~~ Los Angeles Times - 1/15/01

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"Muffitt led the first three movements with an unusual gravitas, and when called for, a gentle touch."
"...a performance rich in energy and detail..."
"Muffitt led the orchestra in long elegant lines of rich sonority."  ~~ Long Beach Press (Telegram) - 1/15/01

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"...a performance of unusual depth.""...Muffitt exuded integrity and passion throughout."

"Muffitt showed himself to be focused and precise, as deliberate and invested in the transitional passages as in the sweeping gestures. As a result, the performance emerged as a unified whole."

"Muffitt kept things taut, refusing to overplay, keeping strength in reserve until needed."  ~~ The Orange County Register - 1/16/01

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"....a mature, insightful and very musical interpretation."

"Muffitt communicated tremendous energy and joy in music-making and drew from the LBSO winning performances from three demanding pieces."

"Muffitt was in control from start to finish, and elicited colorful, rhythmic and confident playing from the entire orchestra. Tempos were flexible, balances were judicious and dynamic contrasts were handled beautifully."

"...this performance was special. Muffitt demanded, and got, dazzling yet sensitive playing from every section." 
~~ Long Beach Grunion Gazette - 1/15/01

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"Conductor Timothy Muffitt led the LPO with equal vigor, drawing out a sensible and intelligent performance that didn't miss out on the sheer beauty and power. Though the outer movements the orchestra and Watts boiled with intensity; the central slow movement was one of poetic poise and restraint."

"The 'Oxford Symphony'...was warmly played. Muffitt found freshness in the delicate lyricism and verve in the in the intriguing orchestration and various ornamentation. The phrasing was appropriately expansive...." 
~~ New Orleans Times (Picayune) - 11/5/00

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"...by the end of the evening, Muffitt had the audience standing and roaring."  ~~ Patriot-News (Harrisburg, PA) - 11/14/99

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"...Muffitt proved a fiery, yet refined conductor."

"...Muffitt and the orchestra gave a fine, red-blooded performance of the Brahms' Symphony No. 4 in E minor. This, Brahms' most intense score, found a champion in Muffitt. His tempos seemed just right. Muffitt never 'milked' phrases or distorted the musical line with excessive rubato. Instead, he kept the musical flow going with a sure sense of forward momentum which emphasized the architecture of the entire work unifying what can seem an isolated group of 'movements'. The orchestra played magnificently from top to bottom, garnering the third standing ovation of the evening."  ~~ The Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 1/9/99

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"...the LPO and conductor Timothy Muffitt gave compelling performances..."

"The overture to Berlioz's opera...got the evening off to spirited start, highlighted by Muffitt's gentle rhythmic drive and elegant work..."

"...it was the whispering tenderness of the balcony scene and the somber elegance of 'Romeo at Juliet's Tomb' that captured the audience's ear and heart with a tremulous but unrelenting hand, creating a profoundly moving performance."  ~~ New Orleans Times (Picayune) - 1/24/98

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"...deep sensitivity is only one of the many ways to describe Timothy Muffitt..."

"Muffitt truly took the the orchestra through several stages, show casing its intense dynamic control."
~~The Chautauquan Daily - 7/8/98

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"Muffitt and the orchestra gave a glorious performance of Ravel's La Valse. The winds were perfectly in tune, the strings lush, and Muffitt's reading full of lilt and passion. Ravel is often under-conducted. Muffitt's La Valse was not the usual anemic pastel wash, but rather a bold, brightly colored reading with healthy blood pounding through its veins. Both Muffitt and the orchestra well deserved their standing ovation."  ~~ The Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 3/7/98

"There was no holding back in the fine performance of Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, which Muffitt conducted with passion and conviction. His personal excitement for the piece was evident, but it never got out of hand. A lot happens in this music, and Muffitt's intimacy with its details provided a well-guided tour.....Muffitt kept track of it all, like a magician pulling an endless supply of multicolored silk scarves from his sleeves."  ~~ The Austin American (Statesman) - 4/19/98

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"A standing ovation finished the Lima Symphony Orchestra's performance....(Muffitt's) impassioned conducting and obvious love and knowledge of the pieces...the orchestra performed beautifully under his baton." ~~ The Lima News - 5/17/98

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"Muffitt won an enthusiastic and sustained standing ovation from the Peoria audience."  ~~ Journal Star (Peoria) - 12/8/98

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"Conductor Timothy Muffitt is one of the LPO's unsung treasures. As artistic director of the series and regular guest conductor for programs across the region, Muffitt brings to the podium solid musicianship..."  ~~ New Orleans Times (Picayune) - 10/11/98

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"Muffitt's consistently insightful and exciting performances have earned him a large and vociferous following who turned out en masse....Muffitt conducts with his entire body and here his body English translated into a keener and more fluid control of the work's (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5) volatile tempo and dynamics.."

"Muffitt left no doubt that he knew both what he wanted and how to get it. In turn, the energized audience left no doubt that they approved of the results."  ~~ Austin American (Statesman) - 4/14/96

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"Conducting with vigor but tight precision, Muffitt found all the joy, energy and originality in Dvorak's sweeping work (Symphony No. 6). The vital rhythms and lyricism came across with a broad exuberance and the gentler, nocturne-like adagio was handled with subtle grace. The whirling, Slavic dances of the third movement and the driving passions of the finale were also played splendidly."

"...Muffitt has long been one of the LPO's most popular guest conductors.  ~~New Orleans Times (Picayune) - 4/19/97

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"Muffitt's tenure has been marked by adventuresome programming as well as musical excellence...Muffitt will be missed by all who have enjoyed his inspired programming and sensitive music-making."  ~~ The Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 4/92

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"Timothy Muffitt and the Austin Symphony partnered Cliburn well, bolstering his musical argument by picking up some of his distinctive turns of phrase, and spotting his virtuosic outbursts with a reassuring certainty."  ~~ Austin American (Statesman) - 5/26/97

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"Muffitt's reading was alert to the piquant qualities of Prokofiev's delightful score (Classical Symphony)."

"Muffitt's handling of the score was masterful. The complexity of Strauss' score (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) can lead to muddiness, but textures remained crystal clear Thursday night."  ~~ The Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 2/3/92

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"...Timothy Muffitt exploited the full dynamic expanse of the ensemble, creating a powerful evening of orchestral music."

"...it was Muffitt's tender emotional declaration of the 'Finale' (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6) that held the audience breathless. Bringing the orchestra down to the extremes of pppp, Muffitt held the Amphitheater audience breathless wondering if the sound had stopped coming from the basses. It was indeed the quietest moment that captured the most passion..."  ~~ The Chautauquan Daily - 7/16/97

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"Conductor Timothy Muffitt is hotter than a firecracker."  ~~ Austin American (Statesman) - 7/3/95

"Under Timothy Muffitt's mettlesome direction, the (Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 2) 'Little Russian' was played with vigor, charm, sustained musical line and--in the finale--fleetness and insistent drive."  ~~ New Orleans Times (Picayune) - 5/2/91

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"Muffitt and the orchestra did a splendid job with Holst's suite (The Planets). The impact of the opening 'Mars' was as shockingly militaristic as Holst intended....Jupiter, the most episodic and diffuse of the work's seven movements was handled with skill by Muffitt. He managed to bridge playful scherzo passages with interruptions of broad Elgarian tunes with ease, making the seams in the movement as inconspicuous as possible."  ~~ The Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge) - 11/28/91

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"For 60 minutes about 100 members of the orchestra presented, to my mind, the most significant musical event of the year and possibly the past several years (Shostakovich Symphony No. 11)"  ~~ Austin American (Statesman) - 12/9/93

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"After intermission came a beautiful reading of Brahm's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. Muffitt gave a no-nonsense performance, never yielding to the temptation to overly indulge phrases in a fit of romantic excess."  ~~ The Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge)

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