On first listen, a piece of music can make Christian Macelaru smile. On second listen, the same piece can make him cry — with sadness or joy, he’s not so sure. But such is the nature of classical music, at least for this acclaimed conductor.
The Saratoga Summer
“It’s all about this heightened sense of emotions,” he said. “Classical music can make you experience emotions at a very high level. But all music tends to speak to the heart.”
Macelaru led the Philadelphia Orchestra through a suspenseful, daring and fun Cirque de la Symphonie program Aug. 9 at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. All eyes were on the aerial acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, court jesters and dancers who pranced their way onto the stage during most acts. But it was the semicircular sea of woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion in the background that lent suspense to the show, making jaws drop, eyes pop and hearts race in the audience.
Classical music gets a bad rap, but as the Aug. 9 performance demonstrated, the genre of music is not only for the gray-haired, the erudite and the refined. No time is better than August in Saratoga for beginners to get into the genre, as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s annual return to SPAC offers three weeks each summer to see an ensemble that knows how to appeal to and wow contemporary audiences.
Macelaru’s advice for first-time orchestra-goers? Go with an open mind.
“It’s like going to a museum,” he said. “If there’s all Picassos there and you were expecting Rembrandt, maybe you’ll be disappointed. But if you just go with an open mind to see what the museum has to offer, you might have an unexpectedly incredible time.”
The great part about seeing the orchestra live is that you’re not confined to a single-sense experience. There is just as much to see as there is to hear.
“Some people really like to watch the conductors,” Macelaru said. “It’s interesting to see what they do with their hands and how their movements can be reflected in the music. What I love to see, what’s fascinating for me, is all the violins moving in sync together, their bows moving in the same direction at all times. It’s really kind of neat to watch this incredible precision.”
If you’re experiencing an orchestra show from the lawn, complete with blankets and picnic basket, you can catch some close-ups courtesy of video screens outside the amphitheater. You can watch violists flick their wrists in time or pianist Jeremy Denk take on Beethoven’s piano concerto of 1795 with his eyes closed.
Macelaru rejects the idea that beginners need actively listen to the music to “get it.” They can if they like, of course, and perhaps they will hear details that add another layer to the experience. But passive listening allows the mind to wander and the music to take the listener on their own personal journey, he said.
“Some music is meant to tell a story,” he said, “and some music is what we call absolute music. It’s music that’s there for the sake of music. One isn’t better than the other. The most interesting part to me is you can put yourself in the music and allow your emotions and imagination to feel whatever the music makes you feel. It can become the most personal experience. Just allow yourself to appreciate the beauty of what it is.”
His final word of advice for beginners?
“It’s OK not to like it,” he said. “It’s OK to like some parts and to not like others. As long as you’ve come with an open mind, then you’re absolutely fine.”