Macelaru returns to UM for ambitious program with Frost Symphony

By Lawrence Budmen

Cristian Macelaru conducted the Frost Symphony Orchestra in music of Ravel, Debussy and Martinů Saturday night.

The University of Miami Frost Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert of the season featured guest conductor Cristian Macelaru Saturday night at Gusman Concert Hall. A UM graduate and currently associate conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Macelaru led an ambitious program of works by Ravel, Debussy, and Bohuslav Martinů. As usual, the Frost ensemble had been playing and rehearsing together for only two weeks. Still, the excellent performances were a tribute to the high caliber of the student players and Macelaru’s skilled leadership and musical insight.

Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso was the most familiar work on the program. From the opening clipped rhythms on plucked strings, Macelaru effectively conveyed both the Spanish languor and rhythmic bite of this orchestral version of a movement from Ravel’s piano suite Miroirs. In the central section, a full-toned and sonorous bassoon solo was particularly well articulated among strong wind contributions.

Also originally from Miroirs, Une Barque Sur L’Ocean is a sensuous portrait of a boat rocking to the waves. Macelaru evoked a shimmer from the strings and harps and maintained a flowing pulse, beautifully detailing the splashes of impressionistic color.

Debussy’s Jeux was originally conceived for the Diaghilev Ballets Russes, which premiered the piece in 1913. Two weeks later the company gave the tumultuous first performance of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Debussy’s tennis ballet was largely forgotten amid the notoriety of Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score. Even today Jeux is all too rarely programmed.

That is truly unfortunate because it is not only Debussy’s last completed work for orchestra but one of his most boldly original creations. Eschewing the misty sonorities of his more familiar instrumental works, Debussy created a series of brief, terse melodic cells in ever-changing rhythmic formations. The harmonic palette is bright and sharp in Debussy’s most modernist score.

The orchestra provided a crisp, incisive account of this neglected masterpiece. Sudden shifts of mood and meter were clear and precise. Rumbling wind figurations floated over murmuring chords from strings and harp and brass interjections were firm and bold. Macelaru gave full value to the score’s hard-edged harmonics and pulsating bursts of short, waltz-like motifs.

During the 1940s and 50s Bohuslav Martinů was one of the most frequently played contemporary composers. With the passing of such champions as Rafael Kubelik, Charles Munch and Karel Ancerl, his music has largely fallen off the radar in recent decades. Originally a Czech nationalist, Martinů’s sojourns in France and the United States yielded a neo-Classical style more Eastern European than Gallic.

His Symphony No. 1, written in 1942, is a large-scale, densely episodic canvas. The bristling, restless first movement turns cinematic in sweeping string tremolos and brassy climaxes that recall Sibelius. Crackling winds and brass toss around a propulsive figure in the Scherzo while lower strings paint a bleak, elegiac Largo. A heroic subjects emerges from churning melodic fragments in the finale with a lovely pastoral interlude. A prominent piano part provides vital underpinning throughout the score.

The Frost players gave a secure, accomplished performance of a work originally conceived for Serge Koussevitzky’s virtuosic Boston Symphony Orchestra. Macelaru deserves credit for programming this fine, distinctive 20th-century symphony and leading such a highly charged account.

The Frost Symphony Orchestra plays at Festival Miami under Thomas Sleeper 8 p.m. October 4 with violinist Joshua Bell and bassist Edgar Meyer. The program includes Meyer’s Concerto for Violin and Double Bass plus works by Joel McNeeley and Tchaikovsky. 305-284-4949;

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Sun Sep 8, 2013
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