Worthy Tribute to a Well-Loved Conductor

Beethoven and Falla: Jorge Federico Osorio (piano), Philadelphia Orchestra, Cristian Măcelaru (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 13.3.2015 (BJ)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F major, Pastoral
Falla: Nights in the Gardens of Spain; Suite No. 2 from The Three-Cornered Hat

This concert was originally meant to be conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a regular and well-loved guest with the Philadelphia Orchestra over a span of 44 seasons. But Frühbeck died last June, at the age of 80, and the program, taken over without change of repertoire by Conductor-in Residence Cristian Măcelaru, was performed in tribute to the late maestro’s memory.

Though he was celebrated particularly for his championing of Falla and other compatriot Spanish composers, Frühbeck was very far from being limited in his range of stylistic sympathies. One of the performances of his that remains most vividly in my mind was of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. It occupied territory far distant from the ruthlessly aggressive primitivism with which that work is commonly thrown at the listener. Frühbeck brought remarkable qualities of delicacy and grace to the score. His vision was obviously not Le Sacre whole and complete, but it was a welcome reminder of aspects of the work that are too often neglected.

In similar stylistically inclusive vein, I felt that the presence of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony was by no means inappropriate on this memorial program. And, happily, my first encounter with Cristian Măcelaru’s conducting was entirely worthy of the occasion. Delicacy and grace were notably evident in a performance characterized by well-chosen tempos (especially in the sweetly flowing “Scene by the brook”), clean textures, and an expressive warmth that never overstepped classical bounds. Nor was there any hint, in the crisp sfp accents he elicited in the first movement’s development section, of the sheer brutality with which I heard George Szell ruin the passage in a Chicago performance back in 1968.

Măcelaru drew polished playing from the orchestra, with some fine, poised solos from the horn section. His technique looks excellent, though I was puzzled by one element in his gestural repertoire, a peremptory outward-and-backward sweep of the left arm, which looked as if it was meant to dismiss some unsuccessful audition candidate summarily from the stage.

The conductor’s Romanian heritage did not diminish in any way his evident sympathy for the powerfully Hispanic feeling of the Falla works on the program. Hearing the concertante piece and the ballet suite in juxtaposition left me with the conviction that the ballet is the stronger of the two by a considerable margin. Mexican pianist Jorge Federico Osorio played the solo part in Nights in the Gardens of Spain with a skill and conviction that were well matched by conductor and orchestra. But it was the exuberant dance rhythms of The Three-Cornered Hat that set my mental toe tapping, and it clearly sent the audience home highly delighted by the afternoon’s music-making.


Bernard Jacobson

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