“All-American” program at CMF is big, bold, brassy

Violinist Elina Vähälä scores with Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto.

By Peter Alexander

Conductor Cristian Măcelaru likes loud, brassy climaxes, and last night (July 6) the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) Orchestra was able to deliver.

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CMF guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru

A guest artist at the CMF, Măcelaru led a program of American music—more or less, depending on how American you consider Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. The concert was filled with big moments for the brass, resulting in a performance that was exciting, always dramatic, but sometimes over the line into a sound that was pushed and raw.

Măcelaru and the Festival Orchestra opened the concert with the Three Dance Episodes from On the Town by Leonard Bernstein. From the first note, the performance was bold, incisive and jazzy. In fact, the playing was so brash, so perfectly in character throughout that one might wish for more jazz-inflected American music from the orchestra.

Which, in fact ,the CMF offers later in the summer! The concert scheduled for July 30 is titled “Classically Jazz,” and will feature music by Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Scott Joplin and more Bernstein, as well as jazz-influenced music by Kurt Weill and Darius Milhaud. Take my word: you will be sorry if you miss it!

Returning to last night’s concert, the Bernstein dances were great fun, but even here the loud climaxes seemed just overplayed. A more restrained, carefully blended sound would serve the music well.

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Elina Vähälä

After the Bernstein, the concert’s second guest artist, Finnish violinist Elina Vähälä, gave a passionate, committed performance of John Corigliano’s “Red Violin” Concerto, music taken from the 1998 film The Red Violin. Vähälä, Măcelaru and the orchestra seemed well matched to bring out the contrasting moods of the four movements.

The dramatic first movement suffered somewhat from Măcelaru’s high-volume style, which sometimes covered the violin, but the dramatic contrasts of sounds were effective. The second movement was all cinematic foreboding, a ghostly chasing of shadows by soloist and orchestra alike. The more lyrical third movement, the expressive soul of the concerto, elicited Vähälä’s most lovely playing. The finale seemed building toward a certain collapse, until a sudden moment of calm, beautifully conveyed by the CMF players, interrupted the manic forward motion.

After intermission, Măcelaru and the orchestra returned for one of the most popular works in the orchestra repertoire, and the first great work written in the United States: Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 in E minor, known by the note that the composer casually jotted on the score, “From the New World.” The performance was very dramatic, and enjoyed by the audience, but I found it often too pushed in both tempo and volume. This was particularly true in the first and last movements: withholding the full impact of the brass until the true climax of each movement allows more of the inner voices and string parts to be heard along the way—the brass can cover just about everyone else—and gives that final climax more impact.

The inner movements were the most effective. In the slow movement, Măcelaru heightened the drama by bringing the softest passages down to a mere whisper of sound, wonderfully played by the orchestra. The woodwinds as a whole played this movement beautifully, especially the solos by the brooding English horn and the scampering oboe. The scherzo was about as fast as I would want to hear it, but never out of control. Here again the woodwinds acquitted themselves well, and the movement never flagged.

Whatever you think of Măcelaru’s interpretation, you cannot question the quality of the CMF players, nor of the performances they deliver from one week to the next. Măcelaru himself said it well from the podium: Boulder is fortunate to have such an ensemble in residence every summer.

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