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

Feb 16, 2020

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 Măcelaru.

On Sunday, February 23rd at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, Cristian Măcelaru 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 Măcelaru 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, Măcelaru 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, Măcelaru 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." 

Măcelaru 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 Măcelaru was in his first season as Music Director.