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Conductor Cristian Măcelaru pairs Beethoven with three contemporary works.

The Rodney Dangerfield of the Beethoven canon, the Seventh Symphony doesn’t get the respect it deserves. All those bouncy, dotted-quarter-note dance rhythms and that pell-mell momentum can careen you right into submission before the final cadence. But conductor Cristian Măcelaru knows the key to the Seventh is in the mournful second movement.

The young Măcelaru–he’s still shy of 40–opened the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s new season with an assured reading of the Beethoven Seventh that brought laser focus to the delicacy and gravitas of the Allegretto. Like the other movements, it holds dearly to reiterated rhythmic motif. Măcelaru introduced it with subdued, searching strings, then let it grow almost organically with each variation. He then let the orchestra — and listeners — take a breath before moving on to the sweet relief of the second theme. Only to come back to the wistful original theme, this time with the superb MSO woodwinds leading the way.

With such a beautifully realized centerpiece, it’s hard to fault the performance overall. Măcelaru brought a touch of dramatic flash to some of the transitions, emphasizing the shifts with expectant pauses or strong dynamic contrasts. The breakneck pace of the final movement sacrificed some detail, particularly in the strings. But overall this was a dazzling way for the MSO to open it’s new season.

Composer Anna Clyne.

Măcelaru started the program with a trio of contemporary pieces. First, he delivered a splashy and breezy romp through Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide. Then he continued with two pieces by living composers. As Măcelaru told the Friday morning audience from the podium, Anna Clyne’s Masquerade is a tone poem that resembles Bernstein’s overture, with musical motifs that indicate different characters. Here, the inspiration is 18th-century promenade concerts held in London, replete with street performers and fireworks. It’s a boisterous tone poem that doesn’t let up in volume and intensity from its opening gong.

Composer Jake Heggie.

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick Suite offered more tonal and melodic variety. Arranged by Măcelaru from the music to Heggie’s 2009 opera, it’s a tuneful and impressionistic evocation of Herman Melville’s fictional world. Măcelaru is a Heggie champion, and the composer deserves it. While he’s criticized as being derivative — drawing inspiration from everyone from Debussy to Benjamin Britten to Stephen Sondheim (to whom Moby Dick is dedicated)–Heggie creates the kind of imaginative soundscapes that will keep audiences interested in contemporary classical music.

Măcelaru will conduct the same program in two more concerts at Uihlein Hall in the Marcus Center — Saturday, September 16, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 17, at 2:30 p.m.

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