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.

 

 

Dover String Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

IF THERE WERE a classical music Mount Rushmore with only four places available, one of them undoubtedly would be reserved for Franz Schubert’s Quintet in C for string quartet and one additional cello. Completed in 1828, the last year in the life of the 31-year-old genius, it contains the narrative of an unquenchable spirit that refuses to “go gentle into that good night.” But it doesn’t deny the inevitable, witness the eerie ‘voice from beyond the grave’ that takes center stage in that great work’s otherwise diabolical scherzo movement.

As part of the Curtis Institute’s “Curtis on Tour” season, the Dover String Quartet (pictured) and cellist Brook Speltz performed the Schubert quintet by video for friends (and other ticket buyers) of Chamber Music Monterey Bay on Saturday evening. Their reading was excellent as were the video and audio quality. The program opened with the recently completed (2018) quintet for the same complement by American composer Richard Danielpour. Or rather, it followed an interview with the composer by CMMB presenter Kai Christiansen on the subject of his work, titled A Shattered Vessel. “I wanted to write a piece that reflected many of the same issues that are in the Schubert quintet—vulnerability, loss, and an immense appreciation for life itself in the face of our mortality,” Danielpour wrote in notes prepared for publication. (For the record, his quintet was co-commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music with Music from Angel Fire [lead commissioner], Chamber Music Monterey Bay, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival, and Linton Chamber Music. The piece is dedicated to violinist Ida Kavafian who convinced the composer that the time had come for him to make good on the idea he’d had 30 years earlier.)

The influence of Schubert and Beethoven is readily at hand in the work, as are the quick movements in the string quartets of Debussy and Ravel. The opening movement, “Things Fall Apart,” was all crisis and struggle, occasionally gasping for air. The second, “Harvest of Sorrows,” delivered a love song without words, a consoling underscored by tremolos. The dancing third, “The Healing Fields,” tossed mottoes from instrument to instrument. At 12 minutes, the final fourth movement, “Homeward,” takes up fully half the work’s performance time. This is all tonal, harmonic music lavished with expressive melody of a traditional bent.

During the interview Danielpour said that he experienced a foreboding that “something terrible was about to happen” that would make us aware of our vulnerability. As the conversation arrived at the fourth movement, Christiansen guessed that there was something of the “Dankgesang eines Genesenen” prayerful slow movement from Beethoven’s Op 132 string quartet. Danielpour, obviously flattered, said, “Precisely!”

Schubert’s quintet is for all time. Danielpour’s is, at least now, for our time. It is too rich a score to have a short shelf-life even while it is more retrospective than, say, the contemporary music one typically hears at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz. But that by itself will appeal greatly to many Cabrillo patrons I’ve heard from in recent years. Sadly, Danielpour was scheduled to appear as composer-in- residence at Cabrillo twice, but was a no-show both times.