Arnaud Sussmann, violin; VSO/ Cristian Măcelaru: Works by Dvořák, Brahms and Enescu, Orpheum, October 1, 2016.

And here comes the parade of young conductors vying for the Vancouver Symphony’s Music Directorship!  In the last two years we have seen a number of candidates, but this year opens up more than 10 new faces, two of which are female and a few are returnees. The prospect is both exciting and potentially frustrating: while one always hopes to find one ‘gleaming star’ that demonstrates unique interpretative skills and sets a fire under the orchestra, very often one witnesses rather ordinary concerts in which the candidate does some things well and others less so, displays competence but not much individuality, and does not elevate the orchestra’s playing appreciably. In North America, extra-musical attributes, such as the conductor’s charisma and social engagement abilities, are an important part of the mix as well. 

Young Romanian conductor Cristian Măcelaru has received some fine press, has just been appointed Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and will conduct a number of major international orchestras this year. He is a conductor of poise and strength, big-boned and passionate in his articulation, and made this concert particularly interesting by performing the rarely-heard First Symphony of his countryman, George Enescu.  Măcelaru impressed by his strong commitment to this often-forgotten score, but his Dvořák Carnival Overture and collaboration with his college friend Arnaud Sussmann in the Brahms Violin Concerto, turned out to be less successful.

I have never heard Enescu’s First Symphony in concert, although there are several recordings now available, the most authoritative being by Lawrence Foster on EMI-Warner, who has championed the composer's cause for decades. A symphony written in Paris in 1905, with a solid Brahmsian training behind it, is bound to combine disparate influences.  There are few other eras in musical history in which compositional fusion and regeneration were so apparent: Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Debussy, Stravinsky – all clustered together. While the symphony starts from tight motivic development, what fascinates one right away is the capricious and colourful little flourishes that mingle with the formal structure.  Some of Enescu’s rustic pushes of energy, touches of French insouciance, and intermittent allusions to a Romanian ‘Shrovetide Fair’ may seem slightly bizarre when placed together but the composer seems to get so much joy from them that the listener cannot help but be carried along by his delight. 

Cristian Măcelaru dove into all this with keen inspiration, and while there is always a guessing game about the composer’s influences and sound, it was the opulence of Strauss and the density of Zemlinsky that stood out more for me than Brahms, though there were hints of Chausson too.  If the opening movement is all about energy and contrast, the following slow movement aims for genuine depth. While it does quote the horn theme from Brahms’ Fourth Symphony almost literally, there cannot be any doubt about the composer’s attempt to wrestle with substantive ideas and feelings. Its range of colour is striking too: running the full gamut from Scriabin to Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. The closing Vif et vigoreux puts everything together.  It starts from a consciously Brahmsian foundation but, then, so many new ideas just seem to pop up out of nowhere. The composer welds all this diversity into a climax of wonderfully innocent joy and jubilation.  Although this is the simplest and most conventional of Enescu’s three symphonies, it was a delight to hear this work in concert. The conductor delivered it with coherence, shape and strong conviction and the orchestra exhibited the right type of flexibility, nuance and power. 

In contrast, the opening Dvořák Carnival Overture was rather heavy going, not really having the Czech sparkle or point in the strings that it might, and being rhythmically somewhat leaden. The ending found more gusto and fire but I cannot help but feel that the conductor misjudged the more wistful middle part of the piece, making it effusive and sentimental, rather than withdrawn and in the spirit of the ‘dumka’.

The Brahms Violin Concerto was not free of problems either.  Arnaud Sussmann has a wonderfully pure tone and consummate technique (ideal perhaps for Bach, Mozart or Berg, to cite different extremes) but his emotional neutrality and the smallness of his scale created difficulties in the Brahms, especially when Măcelaru’s conducting was so strong.  Sussmann moved into the long opening Allegro very linearly and without much lyrical shape, almost refusing to push into its ebb-and-flow or wistful narrative.  While precisely articulated, this hardly carried the movement well: with the broadly-scaled conducting alongside, there was sort of a ‘disconnect’: not much synergy was present for considerable expanses of the movement.  I felt that either the conductor needed to scale down, or the violinist had to push out more demonstratively. Fortunately, the violinist did have a more passionate response to parts of the Adagio, but here the orchestra was even louder and more luxuriant than before, almost thickly sentimental at times. There was again little intimate connection, and the somewhat bullish finale, remarkably free of caprice or joy, did little to change the picture.  This was apparently not a true meeting of minds -- or it needed at least one more rethink in rehearsal.

Arnaud Sussmann is a very promising violinist (his tonal purity and clean articulation remind me a little of Christian Tetzlaff), but his emotional absorption of the Brahms is not complete or mature yet. I think the conductor could have helped him more, rather than being on his own autopilot.  Măcelaru undoubtedly exhibits strong poise, has good structural command and sense of integration, and can get a nicely contoured and full response from the orchestra. But there is also a ‘glossiness’ and self-conscious control in his conducting that worries me, typically associated with his attempt to bring a smoothly-sculpted quality to many string phrases and blocks of sound. The conductor’s methodical shaping seemingly achieves a type of polish or elegance, but actually fosters textures which are too ‘meaty’ and heavy, placing a veneer over the music’s content and slowing the music down. Similarly, the conductor tends towards a rich luxuriance and sentimentality in the more ‘romantic’ passages, rather than probing their intimacy or atmosphere; there was very little soft, inward suspension. I am not sure if this is simply youth or something deeper, but there are both positives and negatives here.


© Geoffrey Newman 2016