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Meeting Mr. Muffitt 

by Marty Demarest


On Friday night, Timothy Muffitt, the second finalist for the position of the Spokane Symphony's music director, will conduct the orchestra and guest artist Benedetto Lupo. Even though two of the evening's works -- Brahms' Symphony No. 2 and Bela Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3 -- are well-known concert standards, Muffitt doesn't want people to assume that they know these works.


"It's great to have a CD," he says, acknowledging a fact of life for many music lovers, and a challenge that many orchestras currently face. "You can put it in, and hear the exact same thoughts about the piece, balanced, well-performed, over and over. And there's something to be said for that.


"But there's nothing that matches the energy of a live performance. Music-making is not a one-way discussion. Performers really do absorb the energy of an audience. And I think an audience does absorb the energy level of a live performance that can't be duplicated at home. A live performance will have an energy level, and an excitement, and an immediacy that can't be duplicated outside of the concert hall."


As the music director for the Baton Rouge Symphony for the past four years, as well as for the prestigious Chautauqua Institution's Music School Festival Orchestra, Muffitt has had plenty of opportunities to generate concert-hall energy. But the surprises that he's encountered while preparing for his upcoming Spokane appearance are what he's enjoying at the moment.


"It's very exciting," he says of the evening's lineup, which features pianist Benedetto Lupo performing the solo part of Bartok's Piano Concerto No. 3, and two works for the orchestra alone: Samuel Barber's short Essay for Orchestra No. 1, and Brahm's celebrated Symphony No. 2. "I've always loved the Bartok. I just haven't had the opportunity to do it yet. The Essay was quite new to me. I've been spending quite a lot of time on it, and I'm enjoying the process."


Muffitt's enthusiasm for the work he's discovering is clear, as he begins to marvel at the ways that Barber, who is most famous for composing the lavish Adagio for Strings, unites the sounds and sentiments of romanticism with a 20th-century composer's insight.


"The idea of calling it an essay is perfect. When we think, in literary terms, of what an essay is, it's a relatively short work on one theme. And that's really what the Barber is. There's one musical theme that carried throughout. But it doesn't fall into a predictable musical structure. It's not a sonata form -- there aren't two contrasting themes. It's really a very clever and effective way to think about an eight-minute piece of music."


Muffitt's ability to articulate insights and ideas about a work of music is a skill that he emphasizes. He not only hosts a monthly radio program in Baton Rouge discussing music, but he has organized and presented music-related programs to different sections of the community. "It's been my experience that the more people know, the more they want to know beyond that," he says. The result in Baton Rouge has been clear: a steadily growing audience.


"I have two overriding theories. One is that every program must have something on it that a potential audience member would look at and say, 'I would enjoy hearing that.' Either they would say: 'I know this piece,' or 'I know this composer,' or 'This is a piece I would like to hear.' And then every program also needs to have some element that is fresh. And that could be a piece by a living composer, or it could be a Haydn symphony that isn't played very often."


Nevertheless, despite having worked with some of the 20th century's greatest composers, like John Cage, Joseph Schwantner, Joan Tower and John Harbison, Muffitt considers new music to be something that must be integrated into a community, not thrust upon it.


"Presenting new and unfamiliar works is not an end in and of itself. It's part of a process in expanding the range of enjoyment for the audience. And I think that it's important that the music director develops trust and gets an idea of where the comfort level of the audience is, so that when they come into the concert hall, they will have consistently positive experiences. And consistently positive experiences with perhaps unfamiliar things, which then expand their palate of experiences in the concert hall that they can find meaningful."


But while there are plenty of classes for conducting and music theory, learning how to field questions from a non-musical audience and how to woo financial donors are things that music directors need to learn on the job. Nevertheless, Muffitt sees a broader range of possibilities in these duties.


"I like to think that a music director doesn't work for a board of directors," he explains. "Of course he does, but the people to whom a music director is really responsible are the people in the community which the orchestra serves. That's the real target that a music director has to keep in mind. The meetings, the luncheons, the speaking engagements are our opportunities to remind people to make time for the arts in their lives. It's very easy to get caught up in our day-to-day grind, and put that back as a second priority. What I tell people when I go speak is: 'You will become a better businessperson if you come to hear our concert on Thursday night, because you're going to be inspired at work tomorrow.'


"So I think part of the music director's job, in all of that community interacting, is to serve as a reminder that just like a balanced diet of foods that we eat, including the arts in your life is important for balancing your lifestyle diet."





Publication date: 03/20/03

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