Cristian Macelaru’s Cabrillo feature in Santa Cruz Sentinel

Cristian Macelaru’s Cabrillo feature in Santa Cruz Sentinel

Cristian Macelaru, the new music director at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, grew up in communist bloc Romania. He learned to read music before he learned his letters and numbers. (Photo credit: Sorin Popa)

Feature: Romanian-born Cristian Macelaru ready to usher in exciting new post-Alsop era at Cabrillo Festival
Santa Cruz Sentinel
By Wallace Baine
November 2, 2016

When Marin Alsop assumed artistic control of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music back in 1992, she commonly had to endure people mispronouncing her first name – like a certain county north of San Francisco.

Today, after 25 years running one of the country’s most distinctive new music festivals, Alsop’s name is known around the world. And Santa Cruzans can claim they were among the first to pronounce it correctly.

Now we have another chance at getting in early on the right pronunciation.

Meet Cristian Macelaru, the Romanian-born violinist and conductor who in September was named Alsop’s successor as the music director of the Cabrillo Festival. For the record, that name is MAH-cha-LAH-roo. “Think Italian,” he said. “Or, you can just call me Cristi.”

At 36, Macelaru is at a similar place in his career that Alsop was back in ’92. He lives in Philadelphia, where he is conductor-in-residence at the Philadelphia Orchestra. He has guest-conducted orchestras throughout North America and Europe, won several awards as a conductor and has performed at Carnegie Hall as a violinist. And he comes to Cabrillo with the kind of backstory, ambitions and ideas about innovation that suggests he poised for a similarly bright future, particularly future summers in Santa Cruz.

Macelaru comes to the festival with reverence for its reputation. “I don’t think there’s a musician around who doesn’t know about it,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine when you’re in Santa Cruz this festival having such a global impact on the music world, but it really does. Everyone pays attention to everything that happens at Cabrillo.”

As an artist, he said, “I was that guy in college who never said no to any project. There was not one thing that was too crazy for me to try.” It’s this habit of what-if open-mindedness that he said he hopes to carry with him as he takes over the helm at the Cabrillo Fest.

“You have to let the music guide you into the way that it needs to go. If you come in saying, ‘Y’know, I don’t want to be involved in electronica,’ or ‘I don’t like folk music,’ you’re already putting unnecessary limits on yourself.”

Still, he expects continuity as he begins to program for next year’s festival. Many of the composers that were cultivated by Alsop and became familiar names to Cabrillo audiences congratulated Macelaru on his new appointment. “The things that are important to me, that I have loved about this festival before I came in, will continue to be there. We’re not going to stop performing new music. We’re not going to stop being inventive and creative about what we perform.”

Heading up a cutting-edge West Coast music festival is a long, long way from where Cristian Macelaru started, as the youngest of 10 children growing up in communist Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. His family was devoted to music – all his siblings became musicians – but life in 1980s Romania was brutal. “We were extremely poor. We struggled to eat. It was a daily battle.”

The family turned to music as a way to find beauty in a world that otherwise didn’t have much of it. “I think it forced me to appreciate beauty in a way that I never would have growing up in an open society. Who would I be today had I not been forced to appreciate art and see it as the ultimate oasis?”

Young Cristian picked up the violin at 6, and learned to read music before he learned his letters and numbers. When he was 10, Eastern bloc communism suddenly collapsed, a profoundly disorienting experience for him and his fellow Romanians. “It was a huge surprise,” he said. In contrast to how the story of the fall of communism has been told in the West – a dismal quasi-enslaved culture suddenly brought into the bright light of freedom – Macelaru said that the event was chaotic and traumatic. “Freedom is misunderstood as having the opportunity to do whatever you want. But freedom only works if it’s very well organized. Romania today is still reeling from decisions made immediately after the revolution.”

Macelaru came to United States by way of happy accident. At 17, he applied to attend a summer arts camp at the Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan. “I thought it was the greatest music camp on the planet,” he said. “But the application was just insane.” He had to complete a lengthy application, submit a videotape of his performance, transcripts from his schools. Turns out he had received the wrong application. He had unwittingly applied not to the summer camp, but the boarding-school academy at Interlochen. He was not only accepted to the academy, he was offered a full scholarship.

It was at Interlochen where he was able to indulge his love for orchestration. When he was teenager in Romania, he was able to get his hands on an orchestration manual by the great Russian composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov. “When I looked at those scores,” he said, “it was for me like looking at a painting. It was so beautiful.” At Interlochen, he had access to what he called “the greatest orchestral library in the country.” That’s what sparked his passion for conducting.

Northern California is an entirely new vista for Macelaru. One of his values that may endear him to his new audiences is a desire to fold in social consciousness into his work. “I’m deeply passionate about using art and music as a starting point for a conversation about some social aspect of life. I’m interested in equality, peace, understanding the human beauty behind a place that is forgotten, or looked upon as being savage. Art has a responsibility to start that conversation. I’m going to open the door to anything.”

At the Cabrillo Festival, Macelaru believes he’s found the right place to make that vision manifest.

“This is the right thing to do,” he said of taking the Cabrillo post. “It’s not a career move. It’s personal. It’s out of love.”

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