This week’s National Symphony Orchestra program employs the commonplace strategy of nesting a new work amidst chestnuts so it will go down easier. It was unnecessary in this case: Pierre Jalbert’s “In Aeternam” was wholly digestible, even enjoyable, and needed no counterbalancing.
But with the hackneyed programming that occurs too often, the NSO filled out the evening with Debussy’s “La Mer,” the Brahms Violin Concerto and Fauré’s “Pavane” (a staple of youth orchestras). Wasted opportunity.
The guest conductor was Cristian Macelaru, in his second NSO engagement. Macelaru is assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra and has made appearances with top orchestras around the country. He has youth, energy and solid training going for him, but I have trouble gauging his musical personality beyond that.
Everything sounded middle-of-the-road and competent. His musical profile is somewhat opaque. The orchestra played well, but certainly no better than usual. In the Brahms, there wasn’t much architecture in the opening tutti beyond the obvious points, and the Adagio lacked repose — the oboe didn’t sound completely comfortable, and internal balances were haphazard. Some of the phrases in “La Mer” sagged as Macelaru turned his attention too quickly to the next thing.
On the other hand, ensemble was tight, shifts in gear were clean, the brass and percussion held their fire and let the rest of the orchestra be heard for a change, and there was high energy much of the time. The second movement of “La Mer” was particularly fine. I would like to hear this young artist’s take on some deeper repertoire, but he planted his flag solidly.
In the Brahms, Nikolaj Znaider disdained any reduction in the size of the orchestra (standard practice for concertos), and more than held his own against the full NSO. Pumping out a huge sound on his del Gesù violin, he dominated the proceedings. I’ve heard violinists with a more ravishing tone up high, and those who put more of a personal stamp on the piece, but everything was laid out with taste and clarity. He knew when he could fool around and when he couldn’t. It was a magisterial performance, marred only in the first movement when he tried to play too fast in the cadenza and too slowly in the coda.
Macelaru was previously a professional violinist, and Znaider is an active conductor as well, so there was a whiff of healthy competitiveness in their collaboration.
Jalbert’s work, written in 2000, is in the standard ABA form, the outer sections yearning in the manner of Copland or Britten, the inner part turbulent and menacing, a la early Stravinsky. By this, I don’t mean that it is derivative, only that it is comprehensible. Not long ago, that would have been a knock on a modern piece, but it is good to see discernible themes and coherent musical rhetoric making a return.
The program will be repeated Friday and Saturday.