During the Philadelphia Orchestra 2013 tour of China, associate conductor Cristian Macelaru was asked to take over a rehearsal, and from almost the first notes, the sound palpably changed into something more robust and dark hued. In Friday's Verizon Hall concert, that sound was even more pronounced when Macelaru filled in for canceled guest conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.
Not everything in the concert was the work of a finished, mature conductor: In Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, tempo changes were puzzling. What was he trying to say? But in the main section of the program he inherited from Heras-Casado, you heard a level of personality you doesn't always get from more prominent conductors in a bold, distinctive Petrushka played in Stravinsky's first (and supposedly more challenging) 1911 version.
In this ballet score about seedy carnival types - the title character is a nasty little puppet - a Dutoit-ish performance with more transparent, civilized sound might've been more warmly received by the Friday matinee crowd.
But with conductors such as Simon Rattle warning that Stravinsky's great ballets are in danger of becoming mere show pieces, you know Macelaru's Petrushka would never be mistaken for Sheherazade. Stravinsky's score often diverges in opposing simultaneous directions, and Macelaru particularly enjoyed accentuating the tension inherent in that.
The rustling among winds and strings was particularly aggressive. Drum rolls between sections weren't quiet, acting like a ringmaster announcing the next death-defying act. And Macelaru's high-velocity tempo in the first section was indeed an act of brinksmanship.
Stravinsky often interrupts himself in Petrushka, a quality heard here with greater abruptness but without taxing momentum - no surprise in light of Macelaru's super-cogent performance of Stravinsky's discursive Song of the Nightingale this year with the Chicago Symphony. Incidental solos, though among the toughest in the repertoire, went unusually well.
Concertmaster David Kim was the first half's soloist, and he chose Tchaikovsky's lesser-known Serenade melancolique and Valse-scherzo. Both feel like isolated works for unfinished concertos - pleasant, soulful, worth hearing at times, and reflecting the mature Kim, as opposed to the competition winner who seems to return when he plays Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. The current Kim is infinitely more satisfying.