Review: Cristian Măcelaru and Mason Bates bring lively energy to NSO

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From the opening notes of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, it was clear that everyone is talking about guest conductor Cristian Macelaru.

The Romanian conductor, 42, is the new director of the Orchester National de France and principal conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Cologne. In 2020, Macelaru shared a Grammy with violinist Nicola Benedetti for Best Classical Instrumental Solo.

It seems that every mention of Macelaru that can be found since winning the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award in 2012 has the descriptor rising — one wonders how one can still see the man after such a sustained ascent.

But with all that increase, what many of Macelaru’s management tales seem to miss is how grounded he is – even his lightest moments are emotionally charged. This is what gives his interpretations their density, but also what made his interpretations of well-rehearsed works by Rimsky-Korsakov (the Russian Romantic’s “Suite of the Tale of Tsar Saltan”) and Dvorak (his Sixth Symphony). like fresh, fertile ground.

Bandleader Christian Reif makes a good guest at Strathmore with BSO

Thursday evening’s concert opened with the “Suite from the Tale of Tsar Saltan”, an animated compilation of one of the three Rimsky-Korsakov operas based on the writings of Alexander Pushkin. The tale itself is a richly detailed folk whopper: a rejected mother and child are set adrift on the ocean in a barrel by a jealous czar; they survive on an enchanted island; at some point, the son becomes a bee; at another, a swan transforms into his bride. That sort of thing.

The imaginative scope of the tale offered Rimsky-Korsakov ample room for his orchestral ambitions – and Macelaru a showcase for his keen sense of storytelling. The music in this action-packed sequel is as close to the visual as you could ask for: cellos paint a rolling sea. Brass platters appearing on a sound horizon like a strip of solid ground. The unmistakably maniacal “Flight of the Bumblebee” – the third and most well-known of the suite’s components – forgoes the metaphor of airy realism. (Note that lead violinist Nurit-Bar Josef and lead flute Leah Arsenault Barrick passed his hot potato of a melody with precision and panache.)

This illustrative quality continued in the centerpiece of the evening, a recently commissioned work from former (and first) Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates, whose “Fantastic Philharmonia” (a “concerto for orchestra and animated film”) explained why a massive screen hung above the orchestra.

Bates, who won the 2019 Best Opera Grammy for “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” and is also a DJ, has long been interested in the collisions of classical music and contemporary practice. If you didn’t know, it was clear in the form of a recurring house beat that occasionally played through the orchestra like the mega-mix playing in your neighbor’s apartment.

With “Philharmonia Fantastique” – commissioned by the NSO with five other orchestras – Bates put these often conflicting predilections to work for a larger mission. In the spirit of self-referential educational works for young listeners such as Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”, Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” or Lenny Bernstein’s explanatory outings in programs such as “Omnibus”, the work of Bates is a section-by-section guided tour of the modern orchestra.

Bates’ music was accompanied by an equally animated film created by sound designer and director Gary Rydstrom and writer/animator Jim Capobianco. With uncanny synchronicity, it transposes the composer’s sweeping score into a charming chronicle of a wide-eyed young listener – a “Sprite” – whose curiosity leads to a colorful and vibrant dive into not just the stuff of an orchestra , but also in the inner workings of its instruments.

In this way, “Philharmonia” demystifies the orchestra to such an extent that it becomes mystical again: Sprite spins through precisely rendered diagrams of the valves of a trumpet or the chamber of a cello. Color-coded sound waves from different sections scroll through three-dimensional staves like a game of Guitar Hero. To that end, an overall “power-up” progression gives the narrative structure (lifted from the forms of video games) and the music its fuel. The audience laughed when Sprite and Macelaru seemed to mirror each other as Sprite took a crash course in conducting.

Bates’ desire to fuse electronics and orchestral textures was not always successful. While I relished hearing a rumbling synth here and there, the other imported embellishments from the dance floor landed with a thump – amplified by the acoustics of the concert hall, which weren’t exactly designed for to party.

Still, “Philharmonia Fantastique,” with its sumptuous sonic palette, striking visuals (imagine a multidimensional Eric Carle), and relentlessly clever turns of phrase (like the “tuning” stretch that teases its final moments) is the kind of experience musical that could easily lighten some young imaginations. (And after a year of dedicated listening at the Kennedy Center, I can confirm that an introduction like this wouldn’t be wasted on adults either.)

Washington Concert Opera’s “Orpheus” illuminates the underworld

Macelaru closed the evening with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6, which further accentuated the aerial view he brings to works charged with the tectonic tensions of a world map. Dvorak’s Sixth is a symphony driven by the composer’s competing affinities for Czech folk music and the vernaculars of his upbringing and the long-standing musical traditions of Vienna – where, apart from these political tensions, it was to origin be created.

Instead, the sixth was first performed in 1881 by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. And while it doesn’t exhibit nearly the same voracious appetite as his later Ninth (the “New World Symphony”), it sports a similar sense of adventure and staggering richness of orchestral color. (It’s easy to imagine that Bates’ lesson will be immediately helpful to some young listeners in the room.)

Macelaru delivered every move with careful attention and sharp intuition. The opening allegro found him moving the orchestra from one state to another: here liquid, there solid as stone. A glowing adagio from the second movement, paper-thin felt, translucent, lit from behind.

The third movement – ​​a wild ride marked “Scherzo (Furiant): Presto” – sometimes felt like he was hurtling towards us from the stage. And Macelaru delivered the final’s triumphant surge with finely controlled intensity, never letting his ecstasies escape beneath the players. To follow up on a lesson in how the orchestra works, Macelaru offered nothing less than a masterclass.

Macelaru conducts Dvorak & Rimsky-Korsakov reruns Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center.