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Cristian Macelaru proves his mettle with the CSO

Guest conductor Cristian Macelaru leads Chicago Symphony Orchestrconcert Thursday March 7 2013 Symphony Center. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Guest conductor Cristian Macelaru leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a concert Thursday, March 7, 2013, at Symphony Center. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

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◆ 8 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

◆ Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $10-$212

◆ (312) 294-3000;

Updated: March 8, 2013 6:36PM

Classical music is filled with true tales of astonishing debuts and late, even last-minute, substitutions. At least as important, though, is when a young artist appears unexpectedly without flash or barn-burning repertoire and demonstrates maturity, insight, flexibility and authority — key traits, each rare and especially rare in combination.

When conductor emeritus Pierre Boulez had to withdraw from his scheduled concerts with the Chicago Symphony here this month, Cristian Macelaru, 32, a Romanian-born American conductor based in Philadelphia, had just a few weeks to prepare a challenging program planned by Boulez. Macelaru can be forgiven for dropping the enormous 1960 “Chronochromie” by Olivier Messiaen, given the weight of the program’s other works and the brief time frame. The winner of a Solti Foundation U.S. emerging conductor award, Macelaru is the real thing, displaying confidence without arrogance and offering expressiveness without excess demonstration.

The presence of Boulez, happily, was felt in the performance Thursday at Symphony Center. There is no finer soloist for Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” than CSO principal flute Mathieu Dufour. Macelaru was able to support this instrumental genius and give him the flexibility that his improvisatory-sounding style demands and deserves. Dufour gave us a dream, and Macelaru provided the gentle, hazy atmosphere.

A big man, pianist Yefim Bronfman plays the big concertos of Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Brahms as if they are shimmering playthings. He took the half-hour Bartok Second Concerto of 1930-31 for a drive that carried its listeners and musical colleagues with him through every hairpin turn and acceleration. Yet he did so with total musicality and as much care with the dark and quiet portions of the central adagio as with the high wire acts of the outer allegro movements. Macelaru kept the orchestra totally in step with the soloist, sharing the idiom fully.

As if a Bronfman superhuman concerto task was not enough, after several curtain calls, he spun out a wholly enchanting and nuanced encore of a Horowitz chestnut, one of Chopin’s most technically challenging etudes, Op. 10, No. 8.

Macelaru’s substitute for the Messiaen was another Bartok toughie, the 1939 Divertimento for String Orchestra. Despite its title, this is no trivial or even light-hearted work, although there are some gentle musical jokes in the last (of three) movements. Here CSO concertmaster Robert Chen was the frequent and focused solo player, and the two men did this Reiner- and Solti-built orchestra proud in music of their Hungarian friend and countryman.

Boulez has always made clear how beautiful and how difficult Stravinsky’s works are when played “cleanly.” Macelaru had all on one page for the symphonic poem “Song of the Nightingale,” a pivotal work in the modernist Russian’s career. Atmosphere and structure were present in equal measure, and remarkably gentle and seductive solo work came from Dufour, Chen, oboe Eugene Izotov and trumpet Christopher Martin. Macelaru had so much trust from the audience as well that when he kept his hand up during the work’s final measures, there was the rare silence in the hall that the piece needs to close with.

Contributor Andrew Patner is critic at large for WMFT-FM (98.7).

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