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World Youth Symphony Orchestra 2022 season overview with Artistic Director Cristian Macelaru

Conductor Cristian Măcelaru
Thomas Brill

Cristian Macelaru shares his vision for WYSO's 2022 season and reflects on his experiences as an Interlochen student.

Interlochen named Cristian Macelaru the World Youth Symphony Orchestra's inaugural artistic director and principal conductor in 2019, but it wasn’t the first time he’d played a leadership role with the ensemble.

Before leading the Orchestre National de France, winning a Grammy and guest conducting the world’s premier orchestras, Macelaru graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and served as WYSO’s concertmaster as a camper.

Macelaru spoke with IPR's Nancy Deneen about his experiences as a student at Interlochen and what’s in store for WYSO’s first “regular” season under his leadership.

Listen to the entire interview or read the edited transcript below.

On the World Youth Symphony Orchestra's full return

This is a pivotal year, and not just because it's been two years since WYSO has been able to come back to its full size. Last summer, we did have a live, in-person season, but it was limited. We were distanced and had to observe so many protocols, which, of course, also had their own artistic value because they forced the students to think about music differently. The limitations also, I hope, gave them a much greater thirst for the full symphonic orchestra sound that WYSO can provide. And that's why, if you look at the list of the concerts we're having, you’ll see some really big, grand compositions. I wanted to give the students the experience I had when I was concertmaster of WYSO, meeting the musical Brahms, Bartok and Debussy for the first time on the Kresge stage.

On this season’s conductors

I wanted to bring conductors to the podium that are a good balance between the big, old conductors that have made a career already and the role models that are very close to the students’ age. I think it's so important for them to have examples and role models of who they can be tomorrow rather than have the students saying, “well, when I’m 80 years old, I will become a conductor.” I want all of them to understand that this is within reach today.

On his dreams of a future as a conductor while concertmaster of WYSO

I remember my very first orchestra rehearsal when I came to the academy. It was the first time in my life that I played in a truly symphonic orchestra. We played Manuel de Falla’s Three-Cornered Hat Suite; I still remember. I had never heard the piece before. I didn't know what it was. And I remember sitting in the orchestra, and somehow, we all played together and made it through the whole piece in the first rehearsal. I had never experienced something like that.

In Europe and in Romania, where I come from, there isn’t a big tradition of symphony orchestra at the high school or even college level. Symphony orchestra is reserved for professional life, so I didn't know I could be playing already.

I absolutely fell in love with the idea of not just being immersed in sound but with this feeling when you’re in the midst of musicians creating music together. It becomes like the feeling when you jump in the water in a lake or swimming pool, and all of a sudden, the water covers you. For me, that's the music. It's that moment of complete immersion, where who I am, who the music is and who the people making the music are – we all become one. It's the most remarkable experience. It's here at Interlochen that I experienced that first, and I fell in love with it.

On this season’s programming

Week one

To start the season off, we’ve programmed one of the greatest orchestral pieces. It’s full of color and imagination from a true father of orchestration. I'm talking about Hector Berlioz and his Symphonie Fantastique, a work that remains fresh even though Berlioz lived so many years ago.

Every time I hear it, every time I conduct it, I discover things in it that are so unusual, especially for its time. It’s so far from what other composers were writing at the time. Berlioz wrote Symphonie Fantastique while Beethoven was still alive, but when you listen to the music, it’s a completely different universe. And he was inspired by Beethoven to write the symphony.

I cannot think of a better way for the students to immediately deep dive into the idea of orchestral sound and symphonic creation. The way that he understood the orchestra is fascinating, using so much percussion and so many instruments, and asking the string players to do things they’d never done before.

There is a programmatic picture behind the piece about the artist himself, who has an obsession that becomes represented as a musical motive. Berlioz stole this idea of the hero being the artist from Beethoven, but then many composers at the end of the 19th century steal the idea from Berlioz, and it turns into the entire work of Wagner and Franz Liszt.

It's a phenomenal piece of music. And to have Erina Yashima come and conduct this concert is also a wonderful opportunity for the students.

Editor's note: Due to illness, Tristan Rais-Sherman will substitute for Erina Yashima.

Week two

I also wanted to make sure that I was bringing something both deeply American but also very transformative, speaking to the DNA of what we call American music.

Of course, we all know Dvořák as the composer tasked to create an American sound. And what is fascinating about that is that he arrived in America with the idea that he had to redefine and create the sound of America. But when he arrived, he realized that the American sound was already here, that American music is what the American experience had created: the spirituals that were born out of the sorrows of the plantations, the rhythms of the native populations. The combination of these two actually created the music that he wanted to discover.

He wrote the very famous Symphony No. 9, the New World Symphony. But what's fascinating about that is that every time I study the work, I try to find the America in the symphony, and I find it. But under the surface of this music is actually Dvořák’s own identity, which is deeply rooted in the Eastern European tradition and the dances and folk music of his home country, Czechia.

In some ways, I like to make a parallel that Dvořák, looking for the American sound, only discovered himself. Because we all, in this American experience, have to bring ourselves to find America. That is my experience.

This experience is why I love that we’re bringing an earlier work of Dvořák’s, his Symphony No. 6, so we can see where he comes from in some ways. And we’re pairing it with one of my all-time favorite compositions, Wynton Marsalis’s Blues Symphony. I love Wynton Marsalis like a brother and have performed his music for many years. We’re excited to bring one of his works to the stage that is purely for the orchestra without requiring anything extra. I think Dvořák would be so proud to see that, in the same concert, we have these two worlds merge and unite.

Week three

Week three is with Roderick Cox, a conductor making a phenomenal name for himself. Roderick is emerging on the scene right now, and again, someone who can help young students understand that they are much closer to their dream than they imagine.

He brings the music of Shostakovich, a composer that I think has become even more relevant in the past two to three months. He has always been relevant, but it’s amazing how the music of Dimitri Shostakovich remains a guiding light because art actually can show the human light at any point in history. It’s not just a historical documentation of the past; in some ways, it's a witness from a human perspective of history.

And Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is exactly that. He struggles to find a balance between remaining true to himself and accommodating the surrounding society imposing their point of view on him as a citizen.

Shostakovich was one of the first active citizen musicians, terminology that was coined by Yo-Yo Ma, with the idea of trying to encourage artists to create something through their art in society. And Shostakovich remains this witness of time, this very human point of view of really the most tragic of times.

In the Fifth Symphony is this incredible moment of human relevance and human struggle that, in the end, becomes victorious through its struggle. It’s so powerful that it fills me with emotion just thinking about it. And this is a message that I think is important for all of us, but especially young people, to understand today: the possibility of discovering the potential within us to change the world.

It's really a remarkable journey, especially while playing beautiful music that speaks of the past and inspires us to dream of the future in the same way that Shostakovich imagined a better future with the symphony’s ending. It was a very, very dark time for him, but he was able to imagine the possibility that tomorrow could be better. This is the lesson I want that I want the students to learn.

Week four

Week four is a week that mirrors the way that this same week changed my life at Interlochen. I’m talking about the collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

When I was a student, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra came. We sat side by side and performed under the baton of Neeme Järvi. It’s a moment that I will never forget. Because to a certain degree, we can only teach music to one point, and after that, the young musicians have to steal the rest. I often tell students, “I show you the door, but you have to go and break the lock and steal what's inside.” That is how music works.

The students will have the opportunity to sit next to the wonderful musicians of the Detroit Symphony under their new music director, Jader Bignamini. It’s an unbelievable opportunity to experience music without having to talk about it, the experience of just making music together.

We’ve programmed the most beautiful, romantic symphony, I would say, by Sergei Rachmaninoff, his Symphony No. 2. I think anyone who listens to it will immediately understand why it has remained such a popular composition among orchestras, conductors and audiences alike. I’m just jealous that I won’t be there to experience it myself.

Week five

Robert Trevino joins us for week five. He, of course, has a phenomenal international career, and I think he can be a great mentor to the musicians. He is bringing a program that combines Florence Price’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with Bela Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra.

I hope it's noticed throughout the season that we are trying to normalize what diversity needs to be in classical music, not just by checking a box but by making it the norm rather than the outlier. And this is why we’re finding ways to make the students understand that we're not making a big deal out of putting one piece on the season that you didn’t find 10 years ago. We’re making sure that every concert will have something like that. Hopefully, this way, in future seasons, we won’t even have to discuss this being unusual or innovative. This should be the norm, what we expect on every single program.

Week six

Of course, every summer ends with Les Préludes by Franz Liszt, a monumental, campus-wide collaboration that has been the tradition from the very beginning. But we also wanted to use the opportunity before to give WYSO their final concert. And this week’s conductor, Tito Muñoz, wanted to bring a little bit of his own heritage as well, which is why we have the Arturo Márquez Danzón No. 2, an incredibly beautiful, popular piece. And then we have Valerie Coleman as well and Ottorino Respighi.

This program is slightly lighter in some ways but much more difficult technically. It's music of bombastic proportions that I think will put the Franz Liszt in perspective and the right context.

On the season’s benefits to the audience

I can't emphasize enough the benefits that the audience will have from watching young students magically creating art at the highest level. I think anyone that loves young people, which I hope is all of us, and anyone that has a slight interest in the beautiful things in life will be able to find something they enjoy. They will be able to see the energy and the incredible expertise on display live, in person with an orchestra of kids who hadn’t met before and are somehow able to magically create this music together. This actually speaks to the power of the arts, the power of music.

It's not that music transforms us from point A to point B. Music is the conduit that unites us to be able to be transformed. And this unity is represented in the way that an orchestra with members from all over the world can, in one minute, really make music together. This is what we should learn as a secondary element to a beautiful concert. Or we can just come and enjoy the music. Either way, I think it's a remarkable experience. And I do encourage everyone to take advantage of this opportunity in the most beautiful surroundings here on the Interlochen campus.

Kacie Brown was IPR's Digital Content Manager until 2023.
Nancy Deneen is the host of Music at Midday and Music by Request.