Cristian Măcelaru and the French National Orchestra

By Scott MacClelland

CRISTIAN MĂCELARU conducted the Orchestre National de France in a short concert that was telecast last Wednesday, 11am West Coast time, by France Musique. Without a live audience, the musicians were left to applaud themselves after each of the three works on the program. The Cabrillo Festival’s Măcelaru was named the orchestra’s music director just this year. He was interviewed after the program, in English, but the presenter translated his remarks into French louder in real time, making it hard to catch everything Măcelaru said about the program, which consisted of the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Tchaikovsky’s orchestral homage to “the Christ of music,” Mozartiana, and the fabulous Sinfonietta by Francis Poulenc.

Founded in 1934, the ONF performs in the elegant Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It was not easy to gauge Măcelaru’s dynamic contrasts because of the flattened sound engineering but the audio did offer plenty of presence and transparency. This provided easy access to the details of drama and complexity in the Mozart overture.

Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana is at best an oddity by a composer capable of unprecedented originality and shameless kitsch, the latter tarnishing what ultimately comes across as a slapdash tribute to his favorite composer. (He wrote it in 1887 on the 100th anniversary of the premiere of Don Giovanni.) The fugal opening Gigue orchestrated Mozart’s piano gigue (K 574). The Menuet gives a similar treatment to Mozart’s minuet for piano (K 355). The suite’s Preghiera (prayer) extracted the late choral work, Ave verum corpus (K 618), from a piano transcription medley of it and another Mozart choral work by Liszt. The final Theme and (ten) Variations is derived from a set of jocular variations that Mozart took from a tune from an opera by Gluck. (All these arcane sources are forgettable, save the Ave verum corpus.) The second variation, with its garish cymbal crashes, sounded especially cheap. The sparkling eighth variation gives way to a mini violin concerto movement of no small virtuosity.

Poulenc’s Sinfonietta, for all its insouciant gaiety, masks a deeper expression that often goes unnoticed by other conductors. Hidden within its four movements are darkly circumspect passages that Măcelaru made sure were given proper attention. Far from the composer’s early irreverent shenanigans, this work dates from 1947, a commission from BBC Radio 3. Poulenc was jolted out of youthful high spirits in 1936 by the violent death in a car crash of an esteemed colleague and returned to the roots of his Catholic faith with the first of several choral works on sacred themes; these culminated in his 1953 operatic masterpiece Dialogues des Carmélites (Dialogues of the Carmelites) for which he wrote both words and music, the Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra of 1959 and Sept répons des ténèbres of 1961. In his performance with the ONF of the Sinfonietta Măcelaru revealed the greater depth in Poulenc’s music that other hands often gloss over.