Dallas — The Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru led the Dallas Symphony through a program of romantic and neo-romantic music on Thursday. The program featured two surefire audience pleasers and another one, rarely heard, vying for a place on that list.
That piece was Samuel Barber’s Toccata Festival for Organ and Orchestra. The astoundingly difficult organ part was brilliantly played by Dallas-based organist Bradley Hunter Welch. It even included an amazing extended cadenza for the pedals alone.
It is about time that the DSO used the Lay Family Organ, an instrument of international acclaim, in something other than Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony.
Perched high above the stage on the organ beach and with his back to the audience, we were unable to see his hands as he delivered such a fine performance. However, we could see his feet clearly in the cadenza as they flew up and down the pedal board with amazing velocity. What a performance!
Unfortunately, the remainder of the program was not as spectacular and the fault, presumably, must be laid at the feet of the conductor. More about that later.
Two Rachmaninoff masterpieces were presented. One was his ever-popular Piano Concerto No. 2, a staple at the Cliburn competitions, and the other was his lesser known Symphonic Dances.
The concerto was played by the brilliant 27-year old Behzod Abduraimov, an Uzbeki-born pianist of remarkable abilities. One of those is strong hands that can get maximum sound out of the piano without banging or overplaying the capabilities of the instrument. And a good thing too, because all evening Măcelaru exaggerated his dynamics, reaching triple forte levels frequently. This, of course, ties the ear and diminishes the few spots where the composer intended they go.
This was most obvious in the next piece.
Abduraimov held his own throughout and, remarkably, was only buried in orchestral sound on a few occasions.
It was obvious that this concerto is a perfect fit for the young virtuoso. He has individualistic thoughts about it and delivered a custom-tailored reading. He watched the conductor frequently but Măcelaru didn’t check in with him nearly as often. Thus, it sounded like it needed another rehearsal or two. But that aside, it was a very exciting performance and Abduraimov was marvelous, especially in the slow movement.
In gratitude to the spontaneous standing ovation and cries of “Bravo,” he played an encore. Surprisingly, he didn’t pull out some flashy showpiece. He played a modest section of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux. It was the highlight of the evening.
Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances is a piece that is not performed as often as it deserves. Most of his works that we know and love were written early in his life. His busy touring career as a virtuoso pianist limited his time for composition. This was his last work.
In 1940, he had a break and decided to write one more large piece. Initially intended to be a ballet, it ended up being a quasi-symphony with the traditional three fast-slow-fast format. Unfortunately, he didn’t finish it before he had to resume a crowded tour as a pianist so he took it with him and worked on it whenever he had a spare minute, because the premiere was already scheduled.
Under the coarse baton of Măcelaru, this performance had strange tempi and overplayed dynamics, so it was fortunate that it wasn’t a ballet. The waltz was so slow that the feel of a waltz was completely absent. The main figure in the first movement is a two-note pickup to the downbeat. It is constantly repeated. At Măcelaru’s rushed tempo, the two-note anacrusis was crushed and indistinct.
All that aside, the piece still received a not-quite spontaneous ovation for a generally exciting performance, despite some small details. Overall, this was an enjoyable concert, well performed and well received.
Moment of Geek: a discussion about conducting.
Since Măcelaru wasn’t observed from the front, there is no way to say how much he conveys with his face and eyes, so everything that follows only applies to Thursday evening, seen from the rear. If seen on another night, this criticism may even be irrelevant.
His podium and baton technique was a mystery. He conducts bent from the waist, and almost always waves his arms widely from the shoulder with the elbow bent. Although they are not a requirement in a conductor’s baton technique, on Thursday there was little evidence of grace or elegance. Only rudimentary dynamics were communicated. He reached quadruple forte before he was just minutes into the piece. In short, he gave little obvious indication of what he wanted.
Of course, baton technique is all over the place with conductors. Andris Nelsons, music director of the Boston Symphony, practically does gymnastics; while the controlled Hans Graf, conductor laureate of the Houston Symphony, doesn’t waste a single motion. Russian conductor Valery Gergiev barely moves.
Under Măcelaru’s conducting, the usually precise DSO was slightly ragged on Thursday night. One can opine that it was because he frequently lacked a definite ictus. This point is needed to identify the exact location of the beat.
Further, it is possible that it takes more time than the short rehearsal schedule allotted for each guest conductor to get used to his style. In future performances of the program, he will hopefully be more relaxed.