photo: Bogdan Iordache / Cultura la dubă
On the 24th of September 2020, Cristian Măcelaru held his first concert as a musical director of The French National Orchestra and was greeted with a welcome message written in romanian.
He reached that position after a democratic vote of the musicians in the orchestra, as rarely happens in the world of classical music. Thus, he was a conductor wanted by the members of the orchestra, not imposed upon them.
At the same time, Cristian Măcelaru is main conductor of the Köln Symphonic Orchestra, WDR Sinfonieorchester, where his contract has been extended until 2025.
Apart from talent, his atypical philosophy regarding working with orchestras has made him stand out among the other conductors. He is playful and open to listen to questions and proposals from his musician collaborators. He does not impose himself through a tough attitude, but he earns the respect and sympathy of the orchestra through the respect that he shows, in his turn, to others.
“Music is made in an intimacy where it is necessary to have a spiritual connection.”
“Perhaps it was necessary in the 20th century that a conductor be severe, authoritarian, such as Celibidache was. But in Celibidache’s orchestra there wasn’t any woman. I could never do that because I respect the people that I work with and I depend on them to give me their best, not to spite me.”
“A concert where musicians play out of fear, to me, is worthless.
Cristian Măcelaru’s story begins in Timișoara, in a family of 10 children, him being the youngest.
“My father was a Mold Technician in a factory in Timișoara and refused to be a member of the Socialist Party, he was also very much involved with the church and didn’t accept telling on the others in church. The Secret Police would summon him weekly and he never accepted collaborating with them. He went through this horror his whole life, but he found a way to be happy – music.”
Through his passion for music, his father formed a church orchestra and guided each child to an instrument. The whole Măcelaru family played instruments, from children to cousins, but not all of them pursued a musical career.
“My father worked around the clock, you can imagine, for 10 children! Countless times he would come home tired, at 10 or 11 in the evening and the first thing he would ask was: have all the children studied today?”
“The one who hadn’t studied had to do it in front of my father. And he would sit and listen until he fell asleep on the chair. He knew that what you discover through music, nobody can take away. That’s the essence of my happiness, it’s not the career, it’s music.”
He is now profoundly grateful to his father for insisting that he studied the violin, the instrument that made him stand out at the start of his career.
In his turn, as a father, he tries to infuse his children with a love for art, whether it’s music, drawing or literature. His daughter, 8, plays the violin and his boy, 10, plays the piano. In every city they visit together, he takes them to museums and opens their eyes to the beauty of the world.
“A parent’s responsibility is not only to send your child to a good school. It is also to teach them to be curious.”
“I would encourage all parents to guide their children toward studying a musical instrument. I have never met a person who had learned to play a musical instrument and after 10 years say: I regret studying the piano!
On the contrary, I meet people every day telling me: I wish that my parents would have made me study more.”
His love for music, his talent, his hard work, but also chance have brought Cristian Măcelaru to where he is today.
When he was just 17, he met a family of americans that were in Timișoara to adopt a romainan child, and teen Cristi offered to show them around town. He even invited them to one of his concerts and they suggested that he went to a summer school in The US.
That’s how he ended up in Michigan and started the adventure that would change his life. Instead of enrolling in summer school, young Cristi accidentally filled out a form to enlist in a local high school. He later found out that he had received a study scholarship and, along with his family, decided to remain there.
As a violin player, he became the youngest concertmaster in the history of The Miami Symphony Orchestra, where he made his debut at Carnegie Hall at only 19.
But his greatest wish was to conduct. And his dream came true.
Cristian Măcelaru welcomed us in the impressive concert hall of Radio France, while recording a concert of the french composer Camille Saint – Saëns, with The French National Orchestra.
The slightest sound was not permitted during recording, but the breaks were full of jokes and smiles, unwinding the members of the orchestra.
The orchestra director said that on the stage he is 100% the same as he is in his free time and is not afraid that it will undermine his authority, on the contrary, it helps.
“Why did I make jokes today? Because what they had to play was so difficult and delicate, I helped them relax, so they played their best. Yesterday I didn’t make any jokes, it wasn’t necessary. (he smiles)”
He was supposed to take over The French National Orchestra in september 2021, but he did it a year earlier after his predecessor resigned. Then, the pandemic special context also changed the part he was going to play in Paris.
In the midst of last year’s crisis, musicians from The French Orchestra were allowed to retire sooner, at only 61. 30 of them chose retirement, and now the positions had to be filled by new musicians, which meant a reconstruction of the orchestra.
“It’s an opportunity for me, to leave my mark on the orchestra, but also for the orchestra, to have a younger feel.”
“The transition is very difficult. Out of a musical director’s duties, about 40% is conducting. Other than that, I’m responsible for every invited conductor, I chose the soloists, the entire repertoire, now it’s the case that I have to fill 30 positions in the orchestra. And every musician takes 3-4 days of auditions.”
The contests for the positions start with an eliminatory anonymous audition, where the contestants are listened to by the jury from behind the curtain. Behind Cristian Măcelaru, the second leader of the orchestra is concertmaster Sarah Nemțanu, the french violinist with romanian origins.
“There’s not an orchestra that I have conducted without some Romanians in it. Without them being some of the most respected.”
“We’ve got our first violin with her parents from Romania, now a girl just won the contest for a violin position, she’s born in Paris, but both her parents are from Romania. A boy who won the contest for the piccolo is from Romania, born in Târgu-Mureș, the second violin from the second line, a musician from Romania just retired, number 3 at viola is also from Romania.
There are talented people, dedicated, hard working. And Romania shouldn’t be proud of them, it should learn from them. That we have a majority that brings us fame, not a minority that brings us shame.”
When it comes to Romania, in the conductor’s speech you can sense both the attachment to “home”, as well as the bitter taste of the impossibility of doing something for his native country. A member of the European Union that unfortunately, follows dusty laws that slows it’s evolution.
“I say this with sadness: even if I wanted to return to Romania, to have a position similar to the one in Paris, I would not be allowed to!
There are so many imposed rules, that maybe 50 years ago made sense, but now are so absurde.”
“10 years ago, when I was assistant conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra, I wanted to apply as a director at an orchestra from Romania. My dossier was rejected because I didn’t have a baccalaureate degree from Romania. I left when I was in high school, I haven’t equiveled my studies in Romania, I didn’t study in the Conservatory in Romania, I didn’t get my master’s degree in Romania, that , anyway, can be bought or passed through easily.
I had my master’s degree in The United States, at Rice University in Houston, where I would go to class daily, where I truly studied. When I occupied the position here, nobody asked me where I went to high school, what my diploma was. No. Everything was according to artistic merits.
That’s why at The George Enescu Philharmonic there are countless empty positions, there are absurd conditions. That’s the death of an orchestra. It’s a huge possibility for an orchestra to refresh itself, but if you don’t fill those positions, it’s death, it’s not a rebirth.”
Regardless, he comes back as a conductor every time he is invited to Romania and wishes to give back to his home country some of what he has learned abroad.
“Perhaps if I weren’t a musician, I would have been involved somehow in the romanian political scene, to try to make a change.”
“It’s very important that those who left Romania find a balance between criticizing and giving back. In the last 6-7 years, I’ve had a concert in Romania at least every two months. Do you think that I went to Bucharest to make money? Do you think I went to Bucharest for the prestige? No.
I went for a single reason. I didn’t want to reach the end of my career and have someone tell me: maestro, why didn’t you do more? It’s simple. A forest doesn’t grow overnight. Someone must plant the seeds, water the ground, then wait years for the tree to grow. You have to do that to each tree, until there is a forest.”
“I come back to Romania oftenly because I can’t imagine keeping to myself what I have received. I can’t live in a world like that. Actually, Enescu says: in music or literature, something becomes your own only when you have given it to someone else.”
In fact, Enescu, a name that has left its mark on the history of classical music, continues to enrich Romania’s image in the world. The George Enescu International Festival is regarded as one of the most important cultural events in the world, according to the musical director of The French National Orchestra.
“People can’t conceive that this is what is actually happening: 3-4 concerts per day with the world’s greatest orchestras and greatest musicians and it’s happening in Bucharest! Not Vienna, Berlin, no. We’re talking about Bucharest.”
“The Enescu Festival in Bucharest is a real wonder.”
A wonder that deserves a concert hall to match. Unfortunately, the great orchestras invited to the Enescu Festival are playing at the Palace Hall, the former congress hall of the Romanian Communist Party. It is one of the pains felt by Cristian Măcelaru, whose name is mentioned to take over the management of the George Enescu Festival.
“What bothers me is that it hasn’t been understood that the benefits of a concert hall in Bucharest would not be only for those coming to the concert, but it would transform a whole city.
Look at what is happening at Elbphilharmonie, in Hamburg. There are millions of people travelling to Hamburg for that concert hall.
Just like The Eiffel Tower is built in Paris. Is the Eiffel Tower necessary? What is the Eiffel Tower good for? It defined not a city, but a whole nation. You can’t separate France from the Eiffel Tower.”
To us, a concert hall in Bucharest would define Romania. The benefits are not only cultural, there would be enormous private benefits. I still hope that this will happen in Bucharest. I hope it happens now. I want it to happen now!”
We wrap the interview at almost 10 p.m. After a work day started at 9 a.m. the maestro leads us into his personal cabin. That’s where we see his baton.
“I love this baton because it is very light. There’s nothing special about it, I bought it for about 20 euros in Japan, I have a set of 5 similar. But I never had to replace it, I’ve been using it for about 15 years.”
He packs his things and puts his backpack on, leaving like a regular person, tired at the end of a day’s work.
In an Airbnb apartment his wife and two children wait for him. He’s normally in Paris for only two weeks per month and is living in a hotel next to Radio France, but this time, given that he’s staying for a month with his family, he rented an apartment. They’re settled in Germany for now, that’s where the kids go to school, but he plans to move to Paris in a year.
He believes that destiny is “the gift that is given to us in order to handle what we’re facing” and that his blessing is to enjoy every moment of playing music.
“If I were to plan my career, I wouldn’t have done it so beautifully. The circumstances were such that everywhere, the exact right door opened.”
“I played concerts where there were more of us on the stage than there were people in the audience. I played that concert with the same passion as if there was a full house. Every chance to give your best is a chance to touch someone. And many of the doors that were open for me had to do with somebody being in the right place at the right time.”
At only 41, Cristian Măcelaru leads one of the world’s greatest orchestras and is the 3rd romanian winner of a Grammy award, following the conductor Christian Badea and the jazz piano player Marian Petrescu.
“I don’t find happiness in what is happening to me, I find it in what I do, because that’s the only way that I can be in control of my happiness.”
“I tell my students: if conducting is what fulfills you, quit conducting, because you will always be disappointed. There will always be a better conductor, a more successful one, more respected.
I try to find fulfillment in music, because music will never betray me.
If I search for it in a Beethoven piece, in the beauty of a Saint – Saëns work, that is where I find happiness and fulfillment, not in what comes back to me from conducting.
Conducting is my way of expression to the world, but what keeps me going is music, that’s what nobody can take away.”
***This story is part of the “France Week” series, a Cultura la Dubă project supported by BNP Paribas.