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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Concert Review: The Ghost of Conductors Past

The Danish National Symphony Orchestra plays Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The conductor Cristian Măcelaru made his Carnegie Hall debut Wednesday night.
Photo by David Swanson for Primo Artists Management.
Wednesday night's concert by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra was more than just a opportunity to hear this fine Copenhagen-based ensemble play the music of Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. It became a tribute to the orchestra's late music director Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who died last summer. His substitute was Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru, an enthusiastic member of the new generation of maestros making his Carnegie Hall debut.

The concert opened with Sibelius' La Valse, a short but memorable tone poem from the Finnish composer. Mr. Măcelaru worked to put his own stamp on the music, going for very soft, slow dynamics in the early pages. Eventually, the orchestra wound itself up, speeding the stretched-out tempos and finding its rhythm for the climax of this piece.

The orchestra was then joined by Anne-Sophie Mutter for Sibelius' Violin Concerto. Although the slinky German violinist played with authority and power, this performance didn't quite gel with Mr. Măcelaru's leadership. The sprawling first movement seemed to find the orchestra hurrying to catch the solo line. As Ms. Mutter forged ahead into Sibelius' flood of fresh musical ideas, the orchestra lagged in her wake.

The slow movement was simply gorgeous, with Ms. Mutter's penetrating tone lamenting over a shifting, unrolling carpet of strings. The Danish players found the depth and texture in the accompaniment, kept in careful restraint by Mr. Măcelaru. The third movement was more problematic, with the heavy brass brigade (tuba and trombone) obliterating the all-important orchestral parts for the winds and low strings. Ms. Mutter found the humor and grace in this folk-like dance movement but the orchestra sounded lead-footed trying to keep up.

Following the last notes, the violinist returned and spoke briefly to the audience. She explained the circumstances of Mr. Frühbeck's death. And then she played a brief encore: an abbreviated version of the Sarabande from Bach's Second Partita. This was the loveliest moment of her performance, with her sweet singing violin tone a total contrast from the icy tone heard during the Sibelius.

The second half of the concert was better, with the players upholding the honor of their countryman Carl Nielsen. The symphony at hand: the Fourth. Dubbed The Inextinguishable by its creator, this jagged, clashing work was the composer's reaction to the First World War. The work's four movements are heard without pause.. Mr. Măcelaru drove the orchestra forward through the contrasting movements, whipping up a poweful storm of sound and bringing out the clarity and virtuosity of the woodwinds.

Nielsen reserves a master-stroke for the final movement of this symphony, a pitched drum battle between timpanists stationed at either side of the orchestra. In this carefully choreographed duel, both players stood out, playing hammer-blows while the other played soft drum-rolls and vice versa. The mighty climax of the work, an expression of the indomitable human spirit in the face of tumult and tragedy. Following this stirring conclusion, the orchestra returned for one more piece: the charming overture to the rarely heard Nielsen comedy Maskerade.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.