From cellist Weilerstein, extraordinary depth and intensity in Shostakovich Concerto No. 1

09.26.09
Alisa Weilerstein
Incident Light

By Mike Greenberg

The greatest artists go for the jugular. They draw blood. They change you.

Alisa Weilerstein is such an artist. With the San Antonio Symphony under guest conductor Rossen Milanov, Weilerstein was the guest soloist in Dmitri Shostakovich’s harrowing Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat on the opening concert, Sept. 25, of the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season. The Majestic Theater program opened with Antonin Dvorak’s sparkling “Carnival” Overture and closed with Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 1.

It seems almost an impertinence to identify Weilerstein as a cellist. She does, of course, play the cello, brilliantly, and she summons from her instrument an uncommonly rich sound enlivened with torrents of overtones. The materiality of her instrument seems always to be immediately present. Yet there is a sense in which that materiality vanishes behind Weilerstein’s extraordinary interpretive depth and emotional intensity - an intensity that attains its most exquisite extreme in the faintest whispers.

In her first appearance with this orchestra, in 2005, Weilerstein’s vehicle was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in D, a congenial piece that did not allow full vent to her musicianship. The Shostakovich concerto did. The extent to which Shostakovich’s music reflects animus against Stalinist tyranny and stupidity is open to debate, but it seems undeniable that he bared a troubled soul in his scores. Much of this concerto is despairing, angry, sometimes ugly. It is also at times achingly beautiful, with a lyricism tinged by the knowledge of mortality.

All of which Weilerstein delivered with precision. Especially memorable were her wonderful pitch inflections and shadings of vibrato (from none to lots) in the slow movement and, in the solo cadenza that constitutes the entire third movement, her trajectory from gorgeous, full-throated lyricism to blind rage.

Milanov and the orchestra gave her a shapely, cleanly detailed backdrop, with an especially fine solo contribution by principal hornist Jeff Garza.

Weilerstein’s generous encore was “Omaramor,” a 1991 work by the Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov. The title is a tribute in part to the exiled Argentine playwright Omar del Carlo and partly to one of the biggest hits of Argentine popular singer Carlos Gardel, “My Beloved Buenos Aires.” The piece has aspects of tango, but also of Bach’s cello suites. Weilerstein played it with admirable empathy.

There was much to like in Milanov’s account of the Brahms symphony -- his beautiful extended lines, the burnished-bronze sound he got from the orchestra, his supple shaping of the andante, his convincing argumentation in the finale. Stylistically, much of the performance was somewhat old-fashioned, with slowish tempos and bottom-heavy balances. A leaner, more nimble approach strikes me as being more consistent with the restless sense of forward motion in the score, but that, as they say, is a matter of opinion. The Dvorak came off swimmingly.

The orchestra was in good shape despite the summer hiatus. It was particularly nice to see and hear Tal Perkes back in the principal flute chair after a year’s leave, though it would be churlish not to thank Hye Sung Choe for her splendid work in Perkes’s absence.