In Conversation with Conductor Cristian Măcelaru




Cristian Măcelaru - Credit: Adriane White

Cristian Măcelaru - Credit: Adriane White


Cristian Măcelaru is one of the most dynamic and insightful conductors of our generation. In September, 2019 he will begin an appointment as Chief Conductor of Cologne’s WDR Sinfonieorchester. He recently concluded a second season as Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music.

He also enjoys a full schedule of guest appearances with leading orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw, City of Birmingham Symphony, Danish National Symphony, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra and other top-notch US orchestras. Last year, Măcelaru concluded a three-season stint as Conductor-in-Residence of the Philadelphia Orchestra and has also directed opera productions of Il Trovatore at the Cincinnati Opera and Houston’s Grand Opera – where he will return next year to conduct Don Giovanni.

In 2012, his career took off in high-profile style after he filled in for Pierre Boulez at the Chicago Symphony – of which this snippet from a review described as “expertly realized performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale under the direction of his {Boulez} replacement, Cristian Măcelaru, the Romanian-born assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.” {Chicago Tribune, February 27, 2012}

Thirty-eight-year-old Măcelaru was born in Romania and raised in a musical family of ten siblings that continues to be a guiding force of inspiration. Early on, his prodigious talent on the violin was recognized and as such, he continued studies in the US at the Interlochen Arts Academy and the University of Miami. In fact, he was the youngest concertmaster of the Miami Symphony at only nineteen years old. And he played in the first violin section of the Houston Symphony. He received a master’s degree in violin performance and conducting from Rice University, where he served as Resident Conductor at the Shepherd School of Music. And he has participated in programs at the Aspen Music Festival and Tanglewood Music Center with David Zinman and Rafael Fruehbeck de Burgos, among others.

Măcelaru is a recipient of the prestigious Solti Conducting Award and his keen ability to embrace both traditional and modern compositions is certainly highlighted at the Cabrillo Festival - held in super cool Santa Cruz, California. During the past two seasons there, he has conducted premieres and works by composers of our time that include Corigliano, Bolcom, Adams, Gandolfi, Zosha Di Castri, Heggie, Kernis and Dediu.

In January, he will lead the acclaimed National Symphony Orchestra of Romania in their first US tour - which will include a guest appearance by Romanian cellist Andrei Ionita (2015 Tchaikovsky gold medalist) and collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in the world premiere of Wynton Marsalis’ The Jungle, in New York City.

Cristian Măcelaru talks with Editor Leonne Lewis about his life in music.

This past summer, you completed a second season as Music Director of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. What are some of the challenges involved in preparing new music vs. traditional compositions?

The challenges are the same for all music - understanding the essence each composer is trying to communicate. Musicians need time to look beyond the technical intricacies presented in a new score, and I don’t mean just individual time, but a collective knowledge acquired from multiple performances by different ensembles that eventually creates a tradition of sorts. With new music it is important to search for the composer’s voice, especially when it is not evident from the start.

In Fall, 2019 you will become Chief Conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester Cologne. Is it possible for a conductor to develop a unique musical identity and sound with an orchestra or have interpretations become too globalized?

This is a question I think conductors are asking themselves right now. And many ensembles are trying to balance their search for artistic identity with relevance in their individual communities. In Cologne, I am pleased to say that the orchestra has benefited from an abundance of wonderful chief conductors who have helped the ensemble define their sound. And while there can be a generational shift with every new appointment both within the orchestra or its leadership, I am pleased to be able to continue building on the foundation already laid out by my illustrious predecessors. As for identity, I think time will only tell the impact of our collaboration. Certainly, I know my music-making style will be influenced by this.

How have your collaborations as concertmaster and violinist in orchestras helped you as a conductor?

 It has given me a unique understanding of the orchestral psychology. So much of a conductor’s job is to create an environment that fosters artistic growth and personal excellence. And interestingly enough, many times that goes beyond the music-making. It becomes a human issue. I feel that the opportunities I had while being part of orchestras for a good ten years before becoming a conductor, have given me a much appreciated perspective into the inner workings of an ensemble full of individual artists.

In January, you will conduct the National Symphony Orchestra of Romania in their first US tour. What characteristics make this outstanding youth ensemble so special and so distinctly Romanian in quality?

I have always enjoyed working with young musicians and have always found a renewed source of energy from my collaborations with young professionals. The National Symphony Orchestra of Romania, also known as the Romanian Youth Orchestra and the Romanian National Symphony, was born out of an ensemble created by my good friend Marin Cazacu in the hopes of giving young musicians in Romania a new opportunity to enrich their lives through music. It then emerged into one of the finest ensembles I have had the opportunity to work with, all the while maintaining the enthusiasm and energy of an orchestra filled with young musicians. The Romanian quality will be most evident in the specific characters we will portray, especially in compositions by Enescu. As I have often found, the only encouragement I have to give them is to embrace fully who they are and not feel pressured to sound like a different, more established international ensemble. It is miraculous how wonderful the performances are when they accept this.

You were raised in a musical family of ten siblings. How has this shaped your attitude towards music and career?

I was fortunate to have parents and a family that put great emphasis on the importance of achieving your personal best. Growing up in communist Romania, music was really one of the only things no one could take from us. In fact, it empowered us. I knew how to read and write music before I knew how to read and write letters and numbers, and I always say that music is my first true language. This was not a choice I made but rather a very wonderful coincidence - to be born into a family that placed great value on the importance of music in ones life and great faith in the transformative power art can have.

This has inspired me to share these values with everyone in the hopes of connecting people with the beautiful art that has changed my life. After all, music is humanity’s first true language as well. Before the creation of religion, we used art to find a spiritual connection with each other and with the universe. And music was at the core of this experience. To me, it will always remain the most meaningful way to connect us and remind us that in it we are all united.