It is rewarding when a conductor who has impressed in the past gets another opportunity to show his/her talents with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). It is even better when that conductor has continued to grow in reputation and renown. Such is the case with Romanian-born Cristian Măcelaru, this week’s guest conductor, who, in addition to being music director of the Cabrillo Festival, was recently appointed as the new chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester. 

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

The program began with a work by Măcelaru’s countryman, George Enescu, who is a hero in Romania; in fact, his birth town, Liveni, changed its name to that of the composer after his death. The Romanian Rhapsody no. 1, composed in 1901, is a compilation of Romanian themes and rhythms. It begins with an introductory statement in the woodwinds of a folk theme, which is followed by more equally charming melodies. Enescu was a great orchestral colorist and as the music builds, it is a whirlwind of dazzling and swirling themes, which are intertwined and transformed with each new iteration. There was also a nice viola solo by retiring Principal Reid Harris. The music ends with a great, grand and exciting finale.  Unfortunately, while this performance was technically brilliant, it ended too loudly. The brass let loose their full fury and they nearly overpowered the other sounds. Măcelaru has a great affinity for and understanding of this music and he shaped it beautifully, but the loud brass in the somewhat harsh Symphony Hall acoustics made for an overly bombastic conclusion. 

In a usual program, a concerto follows an opening piece but, instead, here Shostakovich’s 1925 Symphony no. 1 was next. Those who programmed were perhaps thinking that if the symphony followed the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and intermission, the patrons might leave. Nevertheless, this ordering of the works made musical sense and the full house listened intently to one of Shostakovich’s masterworks. The structure of the symphony is fairly traditional which likely reflects that it was written shortly after the composer’s conservatory training. Its strength is that it demonstrates the composer’s musicality, without being burdened with a political agenda, a characteristic of his later works, which tends to give them a frenzied, frenetic quality. The first theme in the first movement was beautifully and precisely played in the violins. The second theme was marred by some intonation problems in the horns, while the woodwinds played with precision. The violin duet with Concertmaster David Coucheron and Associate Concertmaster Justin Bruns were well played and showcased the different styles of these two musicians; Coucheron was muscular while Bruns was refined. During the development section, the trumpets experienced intonation issues. The overly long, meandering, and sometimes dark second movement had great dynamics and Măcelaru’s transparent interpretation highlighted the Stravinskian influences in the music. The third movement had grand string playing, including an impressive solo passage by Associate Cello Principal Daniel Laufer, who has brought strength to the ASO cello section, a feature that has been missing of late. Măcelaru also coaxed some very pianissimo playing from the ASO. The fourth movement finale, with its fanfare-like figures for brass, was technically strong, bringing this performance of the symphony to an impressive ending.  

The final work was Tchaikovsky’s beloved Violin Concerto with Danish-Israeli Nikolaj Znaider as soloist. This concerto is frequently played and last heard in Atlanta in 2016. The most notable part of Znaider’s performance is the glorious sound of his 1741 Guarneri “del Gesu” instrument, previously owned by the legendary Fritz Kreisler. Znaider brought enthusiasm and grace to his performance but intonation and bowing issues arose from time to time. At the beginning of the second movement (Canzonetta) the delicate sound of his violin seemed a bit at odds with the more forward sound created by the orchestra. Măcelaru deserves credit for making Tchaikovsky sound more integrated, and not nearly as episodic, as he can with some other conductors. The conductor again demonstrated his attention to both the detail and overall structure of a work. Znaider played with great tone and enthusiasm, and the ASO demonstrated how powerful it can be.