One week after opening the 2016-17 season, the Vancouver Symphony hit the jackpot with Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru. A fast-rising star both in Europe and North America, Măcelaru’s Bohemian-inspired programme featured both audience favourites and new discoveries. Despite some frustrating inconsistencies, Măcelaru and the VSO won the audience over with their highly personal music-making.

Cristian Măcelaru © Sorin Popa
Cristian Măcelaru
© Sorin Popa

The evening began with Dvořák’s Carnival Overture, an enthusiastic and raucous piece that played to all of Măcelaru’s strengths. Strong rhythmic flair and an appealingly dark timbre provided a wonderfully folk-like atmosphere, supported by a particularly exuberant percussion section. This was nicely juxtaposed with the contemplative middle section, featuring some wonderfully individual woodwind solos and displaying Măcelaru’s skill at eliciting rhythmic elasticity from the orchestra. Particularly striking was the slow build-up of tension back to the carnival atmosphere of the beginning which, despite some scrappy string runs, provided a particularly rousing start to the concert.

Though in many senses the most Germanic of composers, Brahms provides a Bohemian connection thanks to his friendship and frequent collaboration with the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. Once again, Măcelaru drew highly individual, characterful performances from the orchestra, particularly in the Hungarian-tinged third movement finale. The orchestral tutti sections were particularly notable for the daring flexibility and variation in tempo, with the opening movement starting out dangerously slowly and then picking up speed and intensity as the orchestration became thicker to thrilling effect. Equally effective was the introduction to the second movement Adagio, featuring a sublime oboe solo with scarcely a breath to be heard.

It was a shame that Măcelaru’s individual take on the piece was poorly matched with soloist Arnaud Sussmann’s efficiently technical playing. Since winning a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009, Sussmann’s career has been steadily on the rise. His playing is particularly notable for his old-school tone, with his burnished sound and even vibrato fully on display throughout the concerto. This had the unfortunate effect, however, of limiting the range of colour and expression that is needed for a piece of this length. More problematic was the absolute lack of variation in tempo throughout each of the movements, which quickly became monotonous in the extended sixteenth note passages in the first movement. Similarly, the second movement, while performed with admirable control and beautiful tone, lacked the fluidity needed for the highly modulatory movement to make its full effect. Happily, the finale proved the most successful, and displayed Sussmann’s formidable technique at its best – I have never heard the sixteenth note runs on the final page played with such ease, clarity, and projection, and rightfully brought the concerto to a rousing finish.

Ultimately, it was George Enescu’s First Symphony that ended up being the highlight of the evening. Long known primarily among violinists as the teacher of Yehudi Menuhin, recent performances of his orchestral rhapsodies, violin sonatas, and operas have brought him back into the spotlight. His First Symphony, published in 1905, is one of his earlier major works, and shows the clear influence of Enescu’s French training. With its lush harmonies and shifting orchestral colours, the work is highly reminiscent of the Wagnerian-influenced Massenet and Chausson, and in many ways is part of the same lineage as better-known works such as Pelléas et Mélisande and Daphnis et Chloé.

Beginning with a E flat major brass fanfare, the first movement is all youthful enthusiasm, bringing the audience through a whirlwind of multiple thematically related themes. Once again, Măcelaru drew fantastically spirited playing from the entire orchestra, with a warm, rich string section and incisive brass and percussion. The atmospheric second movement, simply denoted as Lent, featured slowly shifting harmonies and rhythms over a constant eighth-note pulse. Particularly noteworthy was the creative orchestration, adding folk-like colour through various combinations of woodwind duets. This movement above all revealed Enescu’s Parisian influence, which Măcelaru brought out to full effect in the shimmering, improvisatory close of the movement. The third and final movement is a concise, virtuosic movement, displaying rapid shifts in character, colour, and mood. As in the opening Dvořák overture, some of the coordination was rather precarious, sounding as if it were on the verge of careening out of control. Thankfully, Măcelaru brought everything back together as the texture increased in texture and weight. The symphony ended as it began, with powerful brass chords, providing a suitable flourish to end the concert.