By Jason Victor Serinus
SEATTLE – Not even a report that Seattle Symphony Orchestra musicians had left their rehearsal of Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto in a state of awe could prepare one for the extraordinary level of musicianship that soloist Vilde Frang and guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru displayed in Benaroya Hall. Seen and heard on Feb. 1 at the start of a three-concert run, soloist, conductor, and orchestra responded to Elgar’s veiled love letter to Alice Stuart-Wortley with all-out surges of romantic passion that miraculously conveyed the whispered intimacies of a private relationship.
Elgar allows his orchestra considerable time to set the stage before the soloist begins to play. Măcelaru, who began his tenure as music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music in 2017, immediately broke through the confines of “new music” conductor stereotypes by investing a work that Elgar himself described as “awfully emotional! Too emotional…” with a freedom of expression and tempo that harked back to conductors of earlier times. Reveling in dynamic contrasts, Măcelaru drew from his strings the smoothest, warmest, and lushest soundscape I have ever heard Seattle’s musicians produce.
From the midst of Măcelaru’s color-saturated swirls of sound emerged Frang’s astoundingly fragile, heartfelt utterances. With her naturally pale skin rendered virtually white with sorrow by the combination of the hall’s lighting and her pale, flower-splattered sleeveless dress, Frang looked like a cross between an apparition of an operatic Ophelia or Lucia and a frail, Dickensian orphan whose soul drew its entire sustenance from its instrument. The yearning at the heart of her playing, combined with body language that had her variously leaning into her instrument as if for dear life and pulling herself up as if to try to regain equilibrium amidst forces determined to pull her asunder, was breathtaking.
Frang’s slender sound compelled her audience into hushed silence, lest it miss a single note. Even at the height of flu/cold season, hardly a single cough was heard. Not even solo wind instruments that played far louder than she could detract from playing so emotionally wrought that hundreds of audience members broke into applause at the end of the opening Allegro movement.
After Frang paused to compose herself, the ensuing Andante was equally extraordinary for the startling intimacy of its tender, fragile highs. With an approach that made Elgar’s concerto seem the most important concerto ever written, Frang and Măcelaru inspired Seattle’s string section to virtually melt into their music as they played with rare liquidity.
That Frang managed to maintain her delicate sound and tonal beauty as she launched into the virtuosic frenzy of Elgar’s athletic final Allegro seemed nigh miraculous. Eschewing the big-boned, echt Russian approach of some fabled soloists, she nonetheless allowed passion to be her guide as she tugged this way and that, and delivered unaccompanied passages according to the dictates of the heart. Sometimes notes seemed suspended in the air undisturbed, as if time stood still, until the next note spoke with equal truth. Măcelaru hung on Frang’s every phrase, allowing her gorgeous high slivers of sound to sing unencumbered. Although Frang’s sound lacked the volume necessary to end with the exclamation point that Măcelaru clearly wished to add, the overall effect of hearing two artists and full orchestra speak with one voice was to elicit astonished roars of approval and gratitude.
Măcelaru was no less passionate in his performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 3 (1936). This late work, many of whose passages made their way into the composer’s final Symphonic Dances (1940), benefited greatly from yearning waves of sound and thrilling dynamic swings by the conductor and orchestra. In the opening movement, Seattle’s cellos glowed with the warmth of a summer sunset. Reveling in the score’s string sonorities, Măcelaru made of the second movement a fluid rhapsody.
The final Allegro was filled with excitement that bordered on the mystical. When the startling strains of the Dies irae intruded, seemingly out of the blue, they were summarily overpowered by the life-affirming poetic whirlwind that Măcelaru whipped up in the final bars. It was a performance to inspire a revisit by many who have previously written off Rachmaninoff’s final symphony as less than a masterpiece.
The concert opened with Lili Boulanger’s short “D’un matin de printemps.” The orchestra sounded uncharacteristically iridescent as it graced her beautiful, air-filled landscape with the same optimistic energy, excitement, dynamic contrasts, and tonal lushness heard at evening’s end. Even if the Boulanger had been the only thing that Măcelaru conducted all evening, his masterly performance of her five-minute evocation of a magical morning in springtime was enough to convince one that the Seattle Symphony must invite him back soon, and often. As for Frang, who performs Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä on Feb. 9-11 and then heads to Walt Disney Concert Hall for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with the LA Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen Feb. 16-18, it goes without saying that as soon as there is an opening in her packed schedule, Seattle music lovers are prepared to welcome her back with open arms.
Jason Victor Serinus writes and reviews for Seattle Times, San Francisco Classical Voice, Stereophile, American Record Guide, Opera Now, Listen, Bay Area Reporter, and many other publications. He whistled Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. He resides in Port Townsend, WA.