Over the last three years, I have come to look forward to the frequent podium visits from guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru, who returned Friday, May 24, to lead the San Diego Symphony in its final program of the 2018-2019 season. In addition to his prowess on the podium, he has brought significant new repertory to this orchestra, notably John Adams’ “City Noir” and the Wynton Marsalis Violin Concerto. His Friday program featured not only Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and the Beethoven Eighth Symphony, but “Melt,” a work by the younger American composer Sean Shepherd, premiered only last year.
Like last week’s recent work by Alyssa Weinberg, “Reign of Logic,” Shepherd’s “Melt” extensively employed the orchestra’s wide range of sonic possibilities in a thoughtfully structured single movement. Shepherd opened “Melt” with flutes suspending high-pitched, trembling planes of sound that almost sounded as if they were electronically produced. Soon the violins and violas quietly overtake the winds—with subtle help from the percussion section—and pull the center of gravity into the orchestra’s mid range as the thematic ideas become more aggressive and dissonant, soon powered by threatening trombones, grating percussion, and agitated woodwind arpeggios.
From the composer’s explanation of “Melt” delivered to the Copley Symphony Hall audience immediately before Măcelaru started the work, we learned that this downward motion of the music expresses the title’s programmatic implication. Shepherd is depicting the melting due to global warming of 11 ancient glaciers in the Grand Teton National Park: from tiny rivulets in the glaciers’ uppermost regions to rushing streams as the streams grow and gush at ground level.
I found Shepherd’s well-crafted “Melt” engaging, and, yes, we have come a long way since Bedřich Smetana’s bucolic “Moldau.”
Măcelaru opened his program with the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, featuring the Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski. Vibrant and assertive, Trpčeski subdued this grand concerto’s every technical challenge with aplomb. Even more impressive, with his deft touch and nuanced phrasing, he caressed the resplendent themes of the Adagio into a shimmering reverie. Măcelaru and the orchestra offered sympathetic collaboration, especially in those grand moments when the orchestra’s urgent dynamic surges crowned the piano’s climactic cadences. My sole reservation, something I have noted in Măcelaru’s previous visits, is his tendency to push the players too hard in these dynamic torrents, compromising the orchestra’s most rewarding ensemble sound.
And I hope that Rafael Payare, our Music Director Designate, gets the word that we could use a break from Rachmaninoff concertos, which our recently retired Music Director Jahja Ling programmed so profusely. Over the last the last six years, I have reviewed the San Diego Symphony in eight Rachmaninoff concertos—and I may have missed a few. However, the reservoir of piano concertos is wide and deep!
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8, on the other hand, does not suffer from overexposure. A symphony whose ebullience and musical humor could warrant the subtitle “Surprise”—like Haydn’s Symphony No. 94—the mighty Eighth Symphony belies the many serious or scholarly images that have portrayed the composer over the years.
Măcelaru and the orchestra appeared to relish the Eighth’s heroic declamation and rollicking tempos, including an unusually extroverted Minuet. They gave us an equally joyous and polished account of this work, a fitting coda to the season.
This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Friday, May 24, 2019, in the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall in downtown San Diego. It was repeated on May 25 and May 26.