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How an Obsession for Moby-Dick Led To This Orchestral Suite

A. Burnham Shute/Wikipedia Commons

A 2010 opera based on Moby-Dick has spawned an orchestral suite. As WRTI's Susan Lewis reports, this latest incarnation of the classic tale was fueled by the passion of conductor Cristian M?celaru.

On Sunday, February 23rd at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, Cristian M?celaru leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in a program that features the Moby-Dick Orchestral Suite.

It's a 19th-century tale of courage, obsession and revenge; a story of whale hunting and life on the sea. The novel by Herman Melville was out of print when its author died, but surged back in the 20th century to become hailed as a classic.

Jake Heggie's opera Moby Dick premiered in 2010 with the Dallas Opera, where then assistant conductor Cristian M?celaru was enthralled.  "I was so moved by the colors and the harmonic language and the dramatic feel for the story. I said, Jake, would you please make an orchestral suite?"

Heggie was interested but too busy. Six year later, M?celaru asked if he could write the suite.  "[Heggie] said, oh my God, I would love it if you did."

In arranging the work for orchestra, M?celaru looked to the musical motifs, and faced the challenge - and fun - of giving vocal lines to instruments. "There's an aria that the piccolo plays, there's a whole aria that the double bass section plays, and everything in between." 

M?celaru does not think the orchestral suite should necessarily tell the story of the opera. Instead, he says, it should be a journey through the music.  "My goal was to be able to represent the purely musical language that Jake uses to be able to tell this story."

The Moby Dick Suite premiered in 2017 at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, where M?celaru was in his first season as Music Director.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.