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Brahms, Bruch and democracy with WYSO Artistic Director Cristian Măcelaru

 Conductor Cristian Macelaru poses for a photo.

Cristian Măcelaru, artistic director and principal conductor of Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra, talked with IPR about this weekend's performance and repertoire.

Cristian Măcelaru, artistic director and principal conductor of Interlochen Center for the Arts' World Youth Symphony Orchestra, has had a busy year since he last appeared with WYSO.

He's conducted ensembles from the San Francisco Symphony to Jazz at Lincoln Center, but he's also spent time in venues throughout Germany, in particular.

And this week, Măcelaru is bringing a taste of Germany to WYSO with Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 and Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.

Măcelaru joined IPR's Amanda Sewell to discuss the two pieces, his work with WYSO musicians and the orchestra's upcoming concert with soloist Philippe Quint.

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

Attend the concert in person at Kresge Auditorium or listen to IPR’s live broadcast.

The concert begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 9.

AS: I was kind of hoping you'd bring your Grammy Award with you to the studio. Do you take it with you when you travel?

CM: You know, it's difficult to travel with it, because do you put it in the hand luggage? Do you put it under the plane? What do you do? It just stays at home and it basically keeps company to my scores.

AS: Let's talk about the pieces on this week's WYSO program, two masterworks that are pretty contemporary to each other: Bruch's first violin concerto and Brahms' first symphony.

CM: These two composers were really masters in the 19th century. They were contemporaries of each other, and they were heavily influenced by each other. But I wanted to pair them, because Brahms' first symphony is really a stepping stone for every musician. I wanted to be able to give these kinds of opportunities to the students that are participating in WYSO, because it's important to make those first connections, and to be inspired and feel really strongly in touch with the composers of that generation.

And the Bruch concerto — it has become such an incredible staple of the repertoire. It remains one of the most beautiful works written for solo violin and orchestra. And Philippe Quint, a close friend of mine who I've collaborated with several times — knowing that he is actually quite focused and does a lot for education and for young musicians, I really wanted to have him as a partner this week to inspire the young musicians. So much of what we do as artists collaborating with WYSO conductors and soloists has to do with inspiration, has to do with trying to bring along the students. And what I hope at the end of the summer is that everyone will go home not just with an enriched technical ability and understanding of the instrument, but with truly an overwhelming sense of purpose. And this comes through inspiration from the artists that we collaborate with.

AS: As the artistic director of WYSO, you have a hand in choosing not only the repertoire for the concerts you conduct, but you're also shaping the entire season. What guides you as you're steering the repertoire for the summer?

CM: I tried to think very much in the in the big picture sense of what a student studying and being part of WYSO would need in order to have a really strong introduction to the great masters of classical music. At the same time it's important to be able to balance very well the diversity that is necessary in classical music with regards to culture, gender and ethnicity. But ultimately, I want to make sure that it's a progression in the terms of how the development of music comes about.

I'm really fascinated by the way that composers have a connection with each other. So for example, I was explaining the connection between Beethoven and Brahms to the students this morning in the rehearsal. Brahms was always in the shadow of Beethoven and was not able to actually write anything symphonic because he was so much in admiration of what Beethoven had done, and this actually prevented him from creating a symphony. He worked on this first symphony for nearly 20 years before he was able to make his own statement. One of the motives of the statement is a direct answer to Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. It's such an interesting tribute that Brahms pays to Beethoven 80 some years later. And being able to explain this to the students and to have them experience it practically as well, going from Beethoven's fifth symphony to Brahms first symphony — both in C, both with the same progression of minor to major — it's really quite an incredible summer.

And then to continue next week with Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich and then Mahler and a collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra — this is a really beautiful program that I really don't think exists anywhere else in the world. We're able to give a young musician the opportunity to experience the historical line of classical music and the way that it develops going all the way back to Beethoven and finishing all the way to Adolphus Hailstork.

 Cristian Măcelaru ends a performance with Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Cristian Măcelaru acknowledges WYSO musicians after a 2022 performance.

AS: You've just had your first rehearsal with the orchestra. How was it?

Well, the first rehearsal is always beautiful for me, because I imagine, really, there were three musicians in the orchestra this morning that had played Brahms' music before — three out of perhaps 95. And, to me, that first opportunity to take the hand of Brahms and put it in the hands of the musicians on stage — there really is no greater responsibility on my part than to do this the right way.

I talked so much this morning about the meaning behind the notes and the meaning behind the gestures. As a small example, Brahms sets out the allegro of the first movement with a huge accent on the dominant chord that leads to the tonic, and this is like putting an accent on the wrong syllable to emphasize that little gesture. And this motive becomes more and more important throughout the movement. It's important to be able to introduce them to this concept and to talk to them about what this meant in the Viennese society at a time where everything was proper and everything was right, and Beethoven would have never done that, or Mozart, my god, he would have never conceived of that. And then Brahms comes in and says, "No, I'm going to go this way," and he changes the way that the proper things are done.

That led me to a conversation in trying to explain the parallel between society and classical music, because we oftentimes forget that these are human ideals and human representations that are actually presented in a metaphor through music and through musical gestures. And it introduced the idea, on Fourth of July, of democracy and how it is represented in an orchestra. And actually, the best way that you can create an orchestra to make it sound better is to ensure that each member of the orchestra — your colleagues — sound better than you. If you try to be the better musician on stage and to sound your best, it will not create a better orchestra, it will prevent the others from shining. And I think this is such an important parallel of democracy, of the fact that, actually, the minority's voice is heard. This is a statement in democracy. It's an idea that we represent on a daily basis, on stage, in the way that we support each other, we play with it, we listen to each other.

I also gave a parallel to sonata form, which is the musical form that Brahms uses to create the first symphony. It has three very distinct elements: an exposition in which two contrasting themes are presented — two different characters. Then there's a development in which those two characters have to meet each other and have a conversation — an argument. And then at the end, in the recapitulation, the themes are presented again, but they are presented differently, because through the transformation of the development section, you change who you are. And this is — as I was telling the students on stage — this is life. Because if we allow ourselves to meet other people, to encounter different characters, our conversations and disagreements actually transform the way that we see ourselves. And this is the presentation in music of what I think our society can learn from.

AS: You yourself got started here at Interlochen Arts Camp and the Academy. You were even the concertmaster of WYSO. Do you share that information with the students in the orchestra right away?

CM: That's kind of day two or three when I feel like I want to build up on my street cred a little bit. I have a diploma at home that I received at the end of camp in 1998. For those that do not know, there are weekly challenges that you have to fight to maintain your chair. You go through an audition process, and back in those days it was a little bit more difficult than it is today, I have to say. But it's difficult to maintain your chair, especially as the concertmaster of the orchestra where everyone is challenging you. If you're the last chair of the first violin section, there are fewer people that challenge your chair. But if you're a concertmaster, every violinist at camp is challenging your position. And I was very fortunate and worked really hard to be able to maintain my chair for eight consecutive weeks. At the end of the camp, it felt like I had achieved basically the highest thing in life. At the time, I think it was more important than winning a Grammy.

Interlochen Center for the Arts
Cristian Măcelaru performed as concertmaster of the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in the summer of 1998.

AS: How do the students respond when they find out that you were once one of them?

CM: They are a little bit reserved. I was trying to get them to open up today and give me comments. I'm implementing a new rule in the orchestra this year, which is that if you do not play in one movement, you need to have a score and come give me comments at the end of rehearsal. And I was so happy to hear that the entire trombone section doesn't play in the first movement of Brahms — they join later on in the piece. And they had the score and came to me with deeply mature comments about all the things that they heard that they thought could be better. This is really what I'm trying to bring to the kids, but I'm also trying to open them up to the idea that I was once one of them. Sometimes they're a little skeptical. But they also understand that we all start somewhere. And we have all had our mentors that have pushed us in the right direction. And it is at Interlochen that I found the mentors that really shaped my career and my life and my love of music. And for that I remain very grateful.

More from Classical IPR:

Dr. Amanda Sewell is IPR's music director.