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Cellist Weilerstein is riveting on Shostakovich with Nashville Symphony

Alisa Weilerstein
The Tennessean

By Jonathan Neufeld

The program of Nashville Symphony’s “Mozart and Shostakovich” concert had me scratching my head even before I actually listened to it.

It’s a motley collection of works: Mozart’s Haffner Symphony, the world premier of Roberto Sierra’s Sinfonía No. 4, Shostakovich’s Second Cello concerto performed stunningly by Alisa Weilerstein, and Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole. While I could imagine how the Latin American colors and rhythms of Puerto Rican-born Sierra might be in a sort of conversation with Ravel’s Basque-inspired Rapsodie, why the two heroes of the night, Shostakovich and Mozart, were mixed together was a mystery.

Half of that mystery was solved when I heard the Shostakovich next to the Ravel after the intermission. Each piece unfolds thoughtfully, mixing introversion with extroversion sometimes earnestly and expressively, sometimes ironically and almost maudlin. The Mozart half of the mystery was never solved. While one hardly needs an excuse to play Mozart, you would hope there was some reason for programming the piece aside from the fact that the evening needed something like a familiar overture. And this is how the Mozart was performed.

As we have pointed out before, Mozart’s works are extraordinarily difficult to play well. They demand a lightness of touch, consistency and unified musical imagination that were not on display. Slurred passagework and gracenote figures and silences during transitions all had ragged and blurry edges. It was not bad playing, but the sparkle that is essential to a good Mozart performance was lacking.

The Sierra and Ravel pieces fared much better. Sierra’s Sinfonía, whose broad, dramatic strokes are so well suited to Guererro’s conducting style, would have been just as good a finale for the evening as the Ravel was. Though the piece does not have a program, it seems as though it has characters and episodes. The winds need to be applauded for a set of gorgeous solos — in particular, it was a treat to hear the lovely conversation between contrabassoon, flute, and English Horn. Great playing all around.

Alisa Weilerstein is a phenomenal young cellist, with a gigantic expressive range. The introspective opening of the Shostakovich was immediately absorbing — dark and soft, with a tonal sensation of thick felt. The music is almost uncomfortably personal, as though the cello’s private thoughts and feelings are inadvertently being made public. This feeling of exposure is heightened as the theme leaps high in the cello’s range landing on vulnerable-sounding unvibratoed double-stops.

Weilerstein helps Shostakovich shatter this mood with explosive pizzicatos and piercing chordal passages where her sound changes from velvety fabric to something like broken glass. Guererro did a fine job of keeping the orchestra out of her way during the quiet first movement, though the same could not be said of the more rhythmically intricate passages in the second and third movements, which are rich with irony and humor. Shostakovich viciously snaps us back and forth between bitterness, bawdiness, sincerity and humor.

Weilerstein’s ability, both technical and musical, to dance through these radical swings was a sight to behold. The NSO deserves high praise for not only premiering interesting new works, but for consistently getting top-notch soloists to perform with the orchestra.