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'It will be a memory': Conductor Cristian Macelaru introduces WYSO to Ray Chen

Conductor Cristian Macelaru and violinist Ray Chen
Conductor Cristian Macelaru and violinist Ray Chen

Cristian Macelaru leads Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra in their second concert of the 2024 season. Violin sensation Ray Chen joins WYSO for Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.

Cristian Macelaru is the music director designate of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He is also Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra,

This Sunday evening, he takes center stage in Kresge Auditorium alongside star violinist Ray Chen.

"When you have a superstar come in, everyone feels a little bit different," says Macelaru. "Ray Chen is a very, very close friend of mine as well. I have always admired the way that he reaches out to people and how he's able to have an overwhelmingly powerful impact on young musicians."

Cristian Macelaru recently visited IPR to discuss his work with this year's WYSO musicians and their upcoming concert at Kresge Auditorium on Sunday, July 7 at 7:30 p.m.

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

Attend the concert in person or listen to the live broadcast on Classical IPR.

The concert and live broadcast begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Kate Botello: You've come back from rehearsal. How did it go?

Cristian Macelaru: The first rehearsal is always the most interesting for me because I get to meet everyone for the first time. It's also interesting for all the musicians [and] all the students on stage because they get to meet the music for the first time as well. We spent the morning discovering the music of Manuel de Falla, which is fantastic. I told them this morning… this is the very first orchestral piece I played on campus at Interlochen. I still remember it was September 5 that I arrived on campus in 1997.

And the first thing that we did as a collective was a reading of a piece; Matthew Hazelwood was the conductor at the time, and he picked this piece. have so many memories of being in Corson again on the same stage, this time conducting some 26, 27 years later.

It's a wonderful experience to come back and to see the fresh faces and some ones that I've seen from before and from the Academy. And we all converge in this wonderful summer of making music and discovering our interests and passions. [It’s] just how I started down on this path of being a musician here at Interlochen. I shared with the younger generation that I'm hoping this music and this place will do the same for them.

KB: And, of course, you’ve literally been in their shoes. You were the concertmaster of WYSO yourself.

CM: I was in their shoes in every way. And it's amazing to come back and to see their excitement, a little fear, you know, in their eyes. I think the fact that I can relate to how they feel is a big advantage. Hopefully I am able to share something because I know exactly what this first rehearsal is about.

KB: And of course, because you've been in their shoes, you also know what they can play and when they can play it.

CM: Absolutely. And this is such an important aspect because oftentimes I am asked “what is the difference between an amateur orchestra made of adults and mature people, and a youth orchestra. There is a vast difference between the two and what I've discovered in my life is that a youth orchestra does not know its limits whereas an amateur orchestra does.

And I think it's so wonderful to take them on this journey where they have no idea. On a first read it's extremely difficult to figure out all these rhythms and how you play but once they start to understand “Ah – I listen to this voice and I connect with that voice”... I use the opportunity of the rehearsal for a much greater understanding of life, which is – how do we function in a society where we are all important at times? We all contribute to each other's presence and identity and we talk about these issues all the time during the rehearsal process. To see them grow, understand, embrace and immediately start to take on the gestures that Falla puts in music - gestures that represent a completely different culture - this is a culture that to many of them is very foreign.

I think there were maybe 3 or 4 in the orchestra that raised their hands out of a hundred when I asked how many have visited Spain, which is where this music comes from. And for them to experience this diversity will be a lifelong lesson in understanding what compassion can be. Only once you understand one's identity, which is so beautifully represented in the arts, are you able to embrace it..

 Cristian Măcelaru ends a performance with Interlochen's World Youth Symphony Orchestra.

KB: And you did have a great deal to do with the repertoire they're playing for the whole season. Do you put in these social ideas, emotional growth ideas along with the music curriculum when you put that together?

CM: One hundred percent. As artistic director of WYSO, I am in charge of finding the repertoire and working with the guest conductors that come. The first thing that I do [is to] find a way where all the basics are covered. I think every kid that plays a musical instrument should experience Beethoven at least one time in their life. And they should experience, you know, a Romantic-period composer and a contemporary composer. Then look at the diversity that is represented through different cultures that are represented on stage.

It's actually not easy to tell you the honest truth, because it takes a long time to be able to identify exactly the right pieces that are developmentally appropriate. And at the same time, [the music] speaks of different concepts, different ideas. It takes a much greater effort to present a complete rainbow.

I'm very happy that we have been successful, that we presented the wonderful Delyana Lazarova… and this week the music of Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) and Vivian Fung (b. 1975), who is a composer that I met in my role as artistic director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. She created this piece called “Earworms,” which is the concept where you have things stuck in your head that you just cannot get out. I think the kids will have a lot of fun discovering Lady Gaga and the lyrics of a mother singing to her child – a little bit of lullaby music – all things that are very normal for someone who gets melodies stuck in their head and cannot get them out.

But that's a representation of music written very recently. Carlos Simon is coming in the final week with the great JoAnn Falletta. Carlos Simon’s symphony is such a beautiful representation of American art forms and of American music that represents the history and past of our country. It's beautiful to introduce them to this idea and concept and to this music at a very early age.

I hope that people look at this experiment, the way that we present music, the repertoire that we present, the kind of conductors we bring. I think this is a small universe that can be replicated on a much greater scale throughout the United States.

KB: What do you think is the most important thing musically they should take from the Falla, for instance?

CM: The number one thing that I think it's important is their relationship to rhythm. This music lives and dies on the importance of the rhythm. Everything stems from that.

I was trying to tell them how beautiful it was to be in Spain. I was just in Spain on a tour with my orchestra from Paris, Orchestre National de France. I went to see a flamenco show in Madrid and understood how strong the rhythmical gestures are. “Life is rhythm,” I was telling them. It's so beautiful.I try to challenge them in those ways. The rhythm first and foremost in de Falla's music, then the character that we can discover in the way that we hold the conversation with each other through volume and through dynamics that teach us the context of our conversation. I'm challenging them to not look at a forte just as an intensity of volume, but rather as an intensity of character.

Falla's music is full of perfume and full of gestures that are reminiscent of a late night under an incredible sky. There are reflections of the stars in the water. There are many images that come to my mind when I hear his music. I try to portray this to [the ensemble] so they can have this concept and this image that goes far beyond the notes on the paper.

KB: Vivian Fung’s “Earworms” is made up of lots of little things kind of stacked up. There's fragments [of music] and it's kind of silly and confusing. What do you think they should take away from “Earworms?”

CM: I think it's just a fun piece. Not all music needs to be a serious statement. Vivian [Fung] wrote this piece to portray something that came as an idea. She was rocking her child to sleep and her baby kept playing with the toys that play these repetitive songs. I remember that from when I had small children - these things get stuck in your head.

I think everyone would immediately identify with that. Even if I just say “Baby shark,” I think everyone would immediately start to have an earworm in their head. And I love the virtuosity of it. It's really extraordinary the way she wrote it.

And yes it is fragmented, but [the ensemble] starts to complement each other and they start to merge in a way that is really sophisticated. One of the most difficult things as a composer is to make a transition. This is where composers showcase their virtuosity as masters and make a powerful, seamless transition from one thing to the next. It's really quite difficult. Vivian does this; she takes you all throughout the piece this way.

KB: Then WYSO has the opportunity to play with this incredible soloist Ray Chen in this enormous Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which is a completely different flavor altogether.

CM: It was my wish, I'm so happy that we were able to make this work where WYSO will bring not just guest conductors, but one or two really great soloists that are really in high demand all over the world It's so important for the young musicians in the orchestra to see someone play their instrument and to be able to meet someone that has done what they're doing.

When you have a superstar come in, everyone feels a little bit different. Ray Chen is a very, very close friend of mine as well. I have always admired not just the musical aspect or the artistic aspect of his career, but also the way that he reaches out to people and how he's able to have an overwhelmingly powerful impact on young musicians. He has this app (Tonic) and through social media he's using it to get people to play musical instruments.

He was showing me the hundreds and thousands of people that have started playing a musical instrument or are becoming more serious about practicing. They have been hooked through this app in order to be able to gain points and then he offers real time support for people through his practice room app and chat. It's really unbelievable what he does.

It's far beyond what I can understand. But I thought that he would be a perfect artist to be on campus because I can guarantee you that a lot of these young musicians relate to him on a very different level than I do. I relate to him as an artistic partner on stage. They relate to him as someone who is presenting something online that they are all aware of.

Violinist Ray Chen
Courtesy of artist
Violinist Ray Chen

Some of them perhaps are even hooked on how he’s encouraging everyone to practice. I cannot wait actually for the first rehearsal, for him to walk on stage and to see their reaction.

Two summers ago, I went to the youngest orchestra at Interlochen. I went to conduct them just for one afternoon and I took some questions at the end of the rehearsal. I asked, “would any of you have any questions for me?” And we're talking, these are 8, 9, 10 year olds. There was a little girl that raised her hand and she said, “Can you tell us who the most famous person is that you have worked with?”

I thought it was a really interesting question. So I turned it back to them and I said, “You tell me who you think is the most famous person. I'll tell you if I worked with them or not.” Immediately the answer was Ray Chen. And I thought, wow, it's what an incredible thing that at such an early age they have a completely different perspective. Ray is a wonderful violinist, but there are so many musicians out there that are his senior by many, many years. He's still quite young as an artist. I think the fact that they relate to him on this level will make a big impact on campus.

KB: How are you preparing them musically to back up this incredible soloist in this Tchaikovsky?

CM: Accompanying is a completely different skill because it has so much to do with reacting to what's happening in the moment. My way to prepare them is actually quite similar to the way that I prepare them to listen to each other in all the other repertoire. Overall, music is really an opportunity to have a more in depth conversation on stage. Oftentimes conductors get upset at orchestras because they say, “You're not listening to each other.”

The truth is we are. You can't not listen. It's impossible. If you're a musician on stage, you hear music. You're listening to it. The problem is you have to identify the voice that you have to connect to. This is where the conductor's job is so important to teach everyone on stage to know what you're listening to. To have a soloist that does that in a concerto in some ways really brings the greatest focus on that. It's easier as a tool to teach them how to do that. It’s a wonderful opportunity to reinforce the concepts that I'm teaching them.

KB: If you have one wish for your WYSO, what would it be?

CM: I want them to have the same experience that I did when I was here as a student. For me, this is the place I know. This was the place that changed the course of my life. I came here, I discovered conducting, I discovered the beauty of conducting and of music as a profession. I would have been In some way a musician anyways, but it had never dawned on me that conducting would have been the way to do it. Discovering this put me on a completely different life path. My wish for them is to discover this beauty, to discover this energy, and that really we feed off of each other.

I hope that it will be a memory and that whatever they do in life, that they will come back to that one time where they understood what an in depth conversation is in the language that we all share – everyone on the planet – which is music. We don't need to share words, but we share feelings and emotions with each other. In that we find happiness and beauty, and we suffer and we celebrate with our loved ones and our friends on stage. To be able to create this universe on that level, with that intensity, I really hope that this will be a lifelong lesson and experience.

Scott Clemens is Classical IPR's Digital Content Producer and host of Afternoon Classical.