From the first few notes out of the National Symphony Orchestra last night, it was clear what the fuss is over guest conductor Cristian Macelaru.
It seems like every mention of Macelaru one can find since he won the Sir Georg Solti Emerging Conductor Award in 2012 features the descriptor rising — one wonders how on earth we can still see the man after such a sustained ascent.
But with all of this rising, what many accounts of Macelaru’s conducting seem to miss is how grounded he is — even his lightest moments feel fraught with emotional weight. It’s what gives his performances their density, but also what has made his interpretations of well-trodden works by Rimsky-Korsakov (the Russian Romantic’s “Suite From the Tale of Tsar Saltan”) and Dvorak (his Sixth Symphony) sound — and feel — like fresh and fertile terrain.
Thursday night’s concert opened with the “Suite From the Tale of Tsar Saltan,” a lively compilation from one of three operas Rimsky-Korsakov based on the writings of Alexander Pushkin. The tale itself is a richly detailed folkloric whopper: A rejected mother and child are set adrift on the ocean in a barrel by a jealous czar; they survive on an enchanted island; at one point the son becomes a bee; at another, a swan transforms into his bride. That sort of thing.
The imaginative breadth of the tale offered Rimsky-Korsakov wide berth for his orchestral ambitions — and Macelaru a showcase for his keen sense of narrative. The music throughout this action-packed suite is as close to visual as you could ask for: Cellos paint an undulating sea. Plateaus of brass appearing on a sonic horizon like a strip of dry land. The unmistakably manic “Flight of the Bumblebee” — the third and best-known component of the suite — forgoes metaphor for air-swatting realism. (Worth mentioning that concertmaster Nurit-Bar Josef and principal flute Leah Arsenault Barrick passed its hot potato of a melody with precision and panache.)
This illustrative quality carried over into the evening’s centerpiece, a newly commissioned work from the Kennedy Center’s former (and first) composer-in-residence, Mason Bates, whose “Philharmonia Fantastique” (a “concerto for orchestra and animated film”) explained why a massive screen was suspended above the orchestra.
Bates, who won the 2019 best opera Grammy for “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” and is also a DJ, has long been interested in collisions of classical music and contemporary practice. If you didn’t know that going in, it was made clear in the form of a recurring house beat that now and then pushed through the orchestra like the mega-mix playing in your neighbor’s apartment.
With “Philharmonia Fantastique” — commissioned by the NSO with five other orchestras — Bates put these oft-at-odds predilections in service of a larger mission. In the spirit of such self-referential educational works for young listeners as Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” or Lenny Bernstein’s expository outings on programs including “Omnibus,” Bates’s work is a section-by-section guided tour of the modern orchestra.
Bates’s music was accompanied by an equally animated film created by sound designer and director Gary Rydstrom and writer/animator Jim Capobianco. With uncanny synchronicity, it transposes the composer’s sweeping score into a charming chronicle of a wide-eyed young listener — a “Sprite” — whose curiosity leads to a vibrantly colorful dive into not just the makings of an orchestra, but also the inner workings of its instruments.
In this way, “Philharmonia” demystifies the orchestra to such an extent that it becomes mystical all over again: Sprite zips through precisely rendered diagrams of the valves of a trumpet or the chamber of a cello. Color-coded sound waves from different sections race by in three-dimensional staves like a game of Guitar Hero. To that end, an overarching progression of “powering up” gives the narrative a structure (lifted from the forms of video games) and the music its fuel. The audience got a laugh when Sprite and Macelaru seemed to mirror each other as Sprite got a crash course in conducting.
Bates’s desire to fuse electronics and orchestral textures wasn’t always successful. While I delighted to hear a snarling synth rear up here and there, the other embellishments imported from the dance floor landed with a thud — amplified by the Concert Hall acoustics, which weren’t exactly designed to party.
Still, “Philharmonia Fantastique,” with its sumptuous sonic palette, arresting visuals (imagine a multidimensional Eric Carle) and relentlessly clever turns of phrase (such as the punchline stretch of “tuning” that teases its closing moments) is the kind of musical experience that could easily light up some young imaginations. (And after a year’s worth of devoted eavesdropping at the Kennedy Center, I can confirm that a primer like this wouldn’t be wasted on the grown-ups, either.)
Macelaru closed the evening with Dvorak’s Symphony No. 6, which again accentuated the overhead view he brings to works charged with the tectonic tensions of a world map. Dvorak’s Sixth is a symphony driven by the composer’s competing affinities for the Czech folk music and vernaculars of his upbringing and the long-steeped musical traditions of Vienna — where, but for these political tensions, it was originally to be premiered.
Instead, the Sixth was first played in 1881 by the Czech Philharmonic. And although it doesn’t feature nearly the same voracious appetite as his later Ninth (the “New World Symphony”), it does sport a similar sense of adventure, and a staggering richness of orchestral color. (It’s easy to imagine Bates’s lesson coming in immediately handy for some younger listeners in the hall.)
Macelaru delivered each movement with close attention and sharp intuition. The opening allegro found him moving the orchestra from state to state: here liquid, there solid as stone. A glowing second movement adagio felt paper-thin, translucent, lit from behind.
The third movement — a wild ride marked “Scherzo (Furiant): Presto” — sometimes felt like it was racing toward us from the stage. And Macelaru delivered the triumphant climb of the finale with finely managed intensity, never letting its ecstasies get out from under the players. For a follow-up to a lesson on how the orchestra works, Macelaru offered nothing short of a master class.
Macelaru conducts Dvorak & Rimsky-Korsakov repeats Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.