Cristan Macelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra with composer Jennifer Higdon

The Philadelphia Orchestra & soloists with composer Jennifer Higdon take a bow after the premiere of Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto (photo: Phila.Orch)

Cristian Măcelaru finished his three-year tenure as Conductor- in -residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra but he is frequently back on the podium, last month subbing for Yannick Nezet-Seguin in one of the four performances with violinist Joshua Bell.

Măcelaru often interacts with the audience and introduces the playlist, but on the night he subbed for Nezet-Seguin, he launched into an erratically paced performance of Beethoven’s Leonore overture, distinctly underpowered in the first half, but seemed to ignite midway through by way of the impeccable artistry Jeffrey Khaner’s flute lines.

Everyone was on the same page for Joshua Bell’s solid performance of Henryk Wienlawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Indeed, Bell’s focus and energy with The Philadelphians seems to bloom more each time he returns, he is never the ‘star’ in his own zone. Bell has performed this concerto through his career and his interpretive technical artistry has, admirably both authority and immediacy. The lengthy orchestral intro sharp and warm for Bell’s silvery tone in the opening passages.

Wienlawski composed in the 1862 is fascinating in its invention and its decoratively virtuosic passages, which Bell nails.  But to this ear, the second movement is much more musically interesting, especially with Bell’s expressive and subtle phrasing. Măcelaru’s closed the program with Anton Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, switching up the program from Nezet-Seguin’s programming from Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony.

Anton Dvorak’s 9th (New World) Symphony, is a concert hall favorite, but his other symphonies, particularly the composer’s 8th Symphony is just as compelling and Măcelaru detailing bring it to full power and dimension, Măcelaru accenting Dvorak ‘s modernist progressions, and thrilling sonic accelerations.

Măcelaru is particularly expert with orchestral dance music of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Marosszek, with its vivid folkloric eloquence at the center of the piece and it was the rousing opener for the Philadelphians the following week, the centerpiece being the premiere by Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass.

Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto (in one movement) has a distinctly nebulous opening with almost subdued solo lines by Nitzan Haroz and Matthew Vaughn (trombones), Blair Bollinger (bass trombone and Carol Jantsch (tuba).  Higdon typically likes to reveal the musician’s strengths and build the energy  between the strings, winds, percussion and other brass instruments, then Higdon just busts this piece open. It is no surprise that it had so many voicings beside fanfares.

the soloist’s ascendant note passages build dramatic, sustained trombone lines that suddenly riff with staccato dialogue that utterly thrill as the orchestra surges and surfs around them. The polyrhythmic counterpoint of the strings, percussion and another woodwind surfing in and out of the string counterpoint.  This piece has power and brassy poetry.  Higdon received a thunderous ovation as she was coaxed onstage to take a bow with the soloists.

Also on this program, Beethoven’s 8th symphony and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances,   especially interesting to hear how distinctly different the strings are- full, warm and dramatic in both, but in such different ways.