Orchestra and Cristian Macelaru bookend Beethoven with Romanian soundscapes

The Philadelphia Orchestra under Cristian Macelaru will perform with guest violinist Sarah Chang. (Photo: Colin Bell)

At what point does music become more of a tourist experience than art?

Philadelphia Orchestra conductor-in-residence Cristian Macelaru walked all over such not-so-fine lines on Thursday at the Kimmel Center in a winningly idiosyncratic program bookended by two travelogues in sound from his native Romania - with folk elements cleaned and polished to a high gloss.

Such music - Ligeti's Romanian Concerto and Enescu's Romanian Rhapsody Op. 11 No. 1 - can be a point of pride or a source of embarrassment to those who know the less-mediated roots of it all. But Macelaru had a whale of a time, also using these crowd-pleasing pieces for a more serious examination of great composers on the cusp of greatness with Dvorák's Violin Concerto featuring Sarah Chang, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 1. Nothing trivial about that.

Wait a minute: Did I just suggest Ligeti could be lightweight? Yep. Both Romanian pieces showed the composers as mere shadows of their future selves. Ligeti's 1951 Romanian Concerto hasn't the slightest hint of dense complexities to come, and Enescu's 1901 Rhapsody breezily follows in the footsteps of Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture rather than foreshadowing the former's searing Œdipe opera.

Macelaru's authority with the music was obvious, with the exquisitely precise colors he drew from Ligeti and the way Enescu's extravagantly delayed harmonic resolutions stayed aloft. In Dvorák, he made the most of the music's broad strokes and found folksy oompah-pah moments in the brass. But his Beethoven showed the best summation of his talent - and why Macelaru is such an up-and-coming figure in his field.

Elements other conductors seem to regard as either filler or support beams drew special attention from Macelaru in ways that framed, focused, and threw subtle new light on the foreground elements of Beethoven's audacious symphony. Macelaru had purposeful but never rushed tempos. All choirs in the orchestration played off one another with operatic theatricality.

In the Dvorák concerto, Philadelphia favorite Sarah Chang cut a glamorous stage profile and received a cheering standing ovation. But not from me. Chang wasn't one to probe the concerto, a product of the composer's early 40s with great nationalistic conviction but little of the detail that makes his Cello Concerto great.

From Chang's first entrance, climactic high notes went awry, suggesting she wasn't having one of her better nights. Although she warmed up throughout all three movements, with her characteristic bursts of sunshine violin tone and some of the bristling edge of her EMI Dvorák recording, other moments had highly approximate passage work and constricted tone barely audible over the orchestra. A temporary lapse?


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.