The second performance of this past weekend marked the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood debut of Cristian Măcelaru, a conductor whose successes transcended many borders in recent years. The introductory piece was Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, a score anchored by the imagery of 18th-century promenade concerts and by reflections of Old English merry songs. Brilliantly rendered here, it’s a compendium of quickly shifting bright colours, prefiguring in a way the music heard after the interval.

Cristian Măcelaru conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
© Hilary Scott

By contrast, Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor is rather bleak, full of melancholy, yearning and resignation. In Yo-Yo Ma’s heartfelt rendition, neither ascetic nor too passionate, the music seemed nevertheless quite varied, not only in terms of the multiple repetitions of the main thematic material, but also in the palpable contrast between the two inner movements. Măcelaru proved to be an attentive and responsive accompanist, supporting well the cellist’s gentle expressiveness and magnificent “singing” tone. 

Besides being a formidable musician, with an unparalleled desire to discover new avenues to express his talent and interests, Yo-Yo Ma is also a great communicator, definitely a reason why the public loves him so much. After playing the concerto, he grabbed a microphone and talked about the piece being conceived during the time of despair brought by the Spanish influenza at the end of World War 1, about “the enduring human spirit that we all possess” and the need to overcome adversities. And then came the surprise: Yo-yo Ma recited some uplifting lines from Geoffrey Parsons and John Turner’s lyrics for a song named Smile, took a seat in the last row, and played, together with the BSO cellists led by Blaise Déjardin, a transcription of Smile’s melody, originally composed by Charlie Chaplin to accompany the last scene of Modern Times, his 1936 masterpiece!

Yo-Yo Ma and Cristian Măcelaru
© Hilary Scott

The juxtaposition of Debussy’s La Mer and Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody no .1 did make a certain sense. After all, both works were conceived just a few years apart. Considering the first score only as forward-looking and the latter just a prolongation of exploits by Liszt, Dvořák and others is an oversimplification. Composed when Enescu was not yet 20 years old, the Rhapsody, one of his most popular works, does not sound fresh just because Romanian folk music is less familiar to the Western ear even today, but also because it represents a rare synthesis of German late Romantic and French fin de siècle soundscapes. Born in Romania, Măcelaru clearly has an affinity for Enescu’s idiom, for its mixture of structural formality and tonal freedom. (It was surprising to see that the conductor’s biography included in the concert’s booklet, did not mention that he is the current Artistic Director of the quite important Enescu Festival.) 

Despite some excellent playing from its principals, the BSO did not always respond well to Măcelaru’s demands in Enescu; one could discern some discrepancies attributable to the instrumentalists’ limited exposure to the piece. Much more familiar to them, La Mer was played gloriously. The interplay and interlacing between woodwinds and strings was particularly remarkable. It is said that the score was greatly influenced by Debussy’s appreciation for Turner’s seascapes. In this rendition, one could find more reminiscences of the artist’s thicker coloured oil paintings than of his delicate aquarelles. In addition, composed immediately after Pelléas et Mélisande, La Mer certainly retained some of the opera’s mysterious air that was not obvious here.

Nothing in Măcelaru’s versions shed new light on any of the works in this eclectic programme. Nevertheless, his technical skill and his ear for details turned the overall performance into a pleasant and rewarding experience.