On Thursday, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, led by guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, with violinist Karen Gomyo as guest soloist, performed an all-Russian program of music by Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Balakirev at Symphony Hall. The concert was repeated Friday night at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center in Kennesaw, and again Saturday at Symphony Hall in Atlanta.
A native of Timişoara, Romania, the 35-year-old Măcelaru is making his ASO debut with these concerts. He started out as a violinist, traveling at the age of 17 to study at the summer Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. It was there the young Măcelaru decided he wanted to pursue a career as a conductor. His professional debut came in November 2010, conducting Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at Houston Grand Opera.
Currently conductor-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Măcelaru began his tenure there as assistant conductor in September 2011. He also developed a relationship with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Beginning in 2012, for three consecutive seasons Măcelaru substituted for an ailing Pierre Boulez, in that orchestra’s “Beyond the Score” concerts to critical acclaim.
Măcelaru and the ASO opened Thursday evening’s concert with the 1947 version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet burlesque, Petrushka. The piece was originally written in 1911 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. For the 1947 revision, Stravinsky essentially reduced the large orchestration somewhat, and also removed some difficult metrical issues that were in the First Tableau of the original.
Petrushka involves four tableaux in all, connected by drum rolls. The piece musically plays out the story of a stock character in Russian puppetry. The story weaves a tale of the loves and jealousies of three puppets, brought to like by a magician (or charlatan) who controls them. The story is set during 1830 Shrovetide Fair in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Stravinsky’s rhythmically complex, vibrant and often iridescent music offered up many opportunities for individual musicians of the orchestra to have featured moments, however brief. Măcelaru acknowledged some of them at the end during the ovation. Among them: principal trumpet Stuart Stephenson, associate principal flute Robert Cronin, principal clarinet Laura Ardan, english horn Emily Brebach, principal tuba Michael Moore — though the list could viably go on for those deserving mention.
After intermission, Gomyo took the stage as soloist for Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Opus 35. Gomyo and Măcelaru had already teamed for the Tchaikovsky concerto early this month in performances with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada. She will perform it again with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Joshua Weilerstein in May.
Gomyo’s ASO debut was in November 2012, in a somewhat quirky performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major (K. 219) with Matthias Pintscher conducting.
By contrast, Thursday’s performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto was head and shoulders above the Mozart of three seasons ago. A seriously intense violinist, Gomyo played with a bold, articulate sound, with velocity aplenty for the technically difficult work. Even passages of great tenderness possessed a kind of underlying tensile strength.
The concert could have easily ended with the Tchaikovsky, and a few patrons seemed to think it was over and started to leave as the applause for Gomyo began to die down. But there was one short piece left to go: “Islamey,” Opus 18, by Mily Balakirev (1837-1910). Originally for solo piano, the nine-minute work was orchestrated by Sergei Lyapunov. “Islamey” is a fine, colorful example of the composer’s occasional forays into Orientalism, in this case evoking a 19th-century impression of the mystery and exotic flavor of the Caucasus region on the border of Russian Europe and Asia of the Middle East.
This was the ASO’s first performance of “Islamey.” Its placement at the end of the concert felt a little unusual, as it is the kind of work that is a curtain-raiser, opening a concert with a flourish. But that clearly would not have worked well in advance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. It might have been better to have “Islamy” open the second half and have the evening conclude, as seemed more naturally fitting, with the substantive Tchaikovsky.