Alisa Weilerstein scores another hit with Cleveland Orchestra

04.17.09
Alisa Weilerstein
Cleveland Plain Dealer

Every week, practically, the Cleveland Orchestra presents something compelling, or at least interesting. That's just what world-class orchestras do.

Far less often at Severance Hall does one hear something undeniably cool, something that appeals to heart, brain and even body alike. Something, that is, like Osvaldo Golijov's "Azul."

Conceived in 2006 for cellist Yo-Yo Ma and refashioned lately for a new champion, Cleveland native Alisa Weilerstein, "Azul" takes listeners on a pulse-quickening ride fueled by a diverse array of musical and religious traditions.

Among Christian and Judaic rites, 50-plus percussion instruments, improvisation, and flavors of Baroque and South American music, no one style claims supremacy.

At first, Weilerstein is a group player, adding long-held notes to a meditative series of spine-tingling timbral overlaps, many involving Michael Ward-Bergeman's amplified "hyper-accordion." Still, true to her reputation, Weilerstein lavishes each tone, even the softest, with luxuriant emotion.

In "Silencio," too, the second movement, Weilerstein holds to a few notes, sprinkling a chord or two over gentle waves in the orchestra, led by Ludovic Morlot in his Cleveland debut.

The focus instead is on Jamey Haddad, Keita Ogawa and Dylan Moffitt, percussionists mimicking the chirps and buzzes of a tropical forest with a slew of exotic instruments. They're also the engine driving "Transit," a rhythmic intermezzo conveying a sense of rapid motion.

Weilerstein is at last front and center in the conclusion, a yearning aria called "Yrushalem." Plaintive feeling again beams from her bow, this time via high pitches produced right at the cello's bridge. Just like that, the work draws to a close, with long, glistening slides eerily evoking a human voice.

Alas, orchestras rarely play whole pieces as encores. But there's no complaining about the lively treat Weilerstein, Ward-Bergeman and crew deliver instead, "Feira de Mangiao," by Brazilian jazz composer Sivuca.

Besides "Azul," a second cool feature of the program is how it makes sense thematically. All four works are based on dance. Even "Azul" exudes physicality.

Ives' "Ragtime Dances" are impossible not to love, between their rollicking melodies, relentless good humor and enigmatic endings, one of which leads listeners to applaud early. What's more, the orchestra and Morlot fully share the composer's tongue-in-cheek spirit.

Also hard to resist are Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances," especially in the kind of taut, supple performance offered here. Within Morlot's firm pulse, the woodwinds find room in the opening for intuitive, heartfelt interaction, while in the waltzing second movement, the hot-blooded surges give way to a fluid, natural swaying.

Only Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" comes up short. In going for Baroque, Morlot goes too far, valuing lightness over joy and sapping an otherwise crisp performance of its life force. Happily, there's plenty of that this weekend to go around.