Ending Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto Thursday night at Symphony Hall with a flourish of his bow, Nikolaj Znaider turned to guest conductor Cristian Macelaru and exclaimed, “That was fun!”
He wasn't wrong. Leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for the first time since his debut in 2016, Macelaru helped the ensemble create an engaging, and at times thrilling, evening of music, capped by Znaider's dazzling performance. This time around, Macelaru brought Shostakovich, in the form of his Symphony No. 1, which was expertly paired during the first half of the concert with Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 by George Enescu.
Enescu’s rhapsody, a bite-sized composition filled with complex emotions, beautiful solo playing and quick mood changes, is a thrill from the beginning. Macelaru set a sprightly tempo, giving clarinetist Laura Ardan a little more momentum for shaping her opening solo clarinet lines, surrounded by a mostly silent orchestra, waiting to pounce suddenly with forceful exclamations.
With studied precision, the ensemble began painting images with sound — the fluttery 32nd notes in the string sections rising from the orchestra like a cast of jays flitting from tree to tree, the folk-tinged melodies evoking a sun-dappled cottage in the countryside. Enescu demands an ensemble of capable, expressive soloists; these ASO soloists emerged from the sparse orchestration to dance and sing before wending back down to join the group.
Challenging melodic runs were clean and clear. With numerous internal melodies ticking concurrently within the ensemble, Macelaru made sure every note lined up. In some parts, a delightful cacophony arose from the orchestra, accentuated by the two harps on stage, only to suddenly brighten up, thin out and become a sparse, thinly populated expanse. These mood changes happened suddenly, and the ASO handled the quick shifts with poise.
While Enescu’s language is rounded edges and honeyed tones, Shostakovich’s work is more pointed and aggressive. The opening muted trumpet phrase, an angular burst of music that sliced through the silent hall, was met with solo bassoon, more direct and confrontational than the typical round and jolly tone. Throughout the piece, melodies passed from one section of the orchestra to the other; the ASO made these handoffs seamless, the musicians perfectly matching their phrasing and attacks.
Znaider had been pressed into service to perform the Tchaikovsky when Hilary Hahn withdrew from the concert, and the Danish violinist played with a vigor and determination that would have been hard for anyone to match. His pithy comment at the end of the demanding solo work belies the enormous task of performing the piece, but lines up with the violinist’s self-effacing presence on stage.
The violin concerto is built on a singable theme that the soloist exploits throughout the work — stretching it out to the upper harmonics of the violin, thickening it up with chordal double stops and creating a decadent through line, decorated with trills and florid playing. Znaider conjured up a “goes-to-11” intensity, minus the gaudy dramatic flair a showpiece like this practically begs for, for a superb ending to one of the best all-around concerts of the season.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
8 p.m. May 31. Additional performances at 8 p.m. June 2 and 3 p.m. June 3. $22-$108. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.
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