A galvanizing cellist with the orchestra

11.07.09
Alisa Weilerstein
Philadelphia Inquirer

By David Patrick Stearns

Notes don't ring so much as they tend to be wrung from Dvorak's Cello Concerto: It's the grandest piece of its kind and solo cellists can't help loving it to their (and sometimes the audience's) distraction.

Only when the concerto is performed by somebody as original and charismatic as Alisa Weilerstein, the Philadelphia Orchestra's featured soloist yesterday at the Kimmel Center, does one realize how much greater the overall effect can be when individual notes, typically punched and vibrated to the far reaches of the auditorium, have their identity subverted to a larger idea.

The increasingly mature Weilerstein (who is 27 but incongruously looks 14) has always been one to make you momentarily forget past performances in the most standard of repertoire. What she accomplished yesterday was like a throwback to the pre-World War II years of Emanuel Feuermann, when any Dvorak soloist was likely to be the orchestra's principal cellist (Yo-Yo Ma's stardom is a historically recent phenomenon) and more inclined to play as a less competitive team member.

So it was yesterday. The first movement's long introduction, led by guest conductor Peter Oundjian, seemed expressively uncertain right down to the horn solo. Yet Weilerstein's entrance had something of a galvanizing effect on the overall ensemble; everyone suddenly knew exactly what they were about. The horn/cello interplay had much to say. Even more revealing was Weilerstein's third-movement duet with associate concertmaster Juliette Kang. Dramatic contrast wasn't lacking in the least; the music takes care of that just fine.

The concerto's solo writing can seem like a long trudge when cellists try to achieve an endlessly evolving Wagnerian sense of line. Somewhat in the spirit of the early-music movement, Weilerstein delivered smartly molded episodes, each building on the last, creating a series of emotional incidents that contributed to the whole.

A less resourceful cellist could seem to dither; Weilerstein was the opposite. That was partly thanks to her youthful energy, partly due to a technique that gives transparency to every expressive intention. Purely from a technical standpoint, Weilerstein was almost shockingly accurate in her pitch, particularly in upward leaps that are almost never played spot-on.

Carl Nielsen's 1922 Symphony No. 5, absent from the orchestra's subscription concerts for 17 years, is a gem in the 20th-century literature and again illustrated Oundjian's continued growth from a tasteful, efficient conductor to a genuinely interesting one. Orchestra musicians don't always like Nielsen because this tough, dense music makes them work like the devil in ways that the audience never hears enough to appreciate. But the Symphony No. 5 is a model of clarity from concept to orchestration.

Oundjian appears to have a special relationship with the piece, not just because the struggle for domination among the piece's moving parts had such covert drama. His attention to the many details illuminated the strangeness of the music - a quality that keeps its post-World War I program from turning into a mere musical morality play. While his Nielsen definitely has an edge, much beautiful music-making was apparent among the individual sections (the Charles Dutoit effect?), though the beauty was never an end in itself.

So what was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte overture doing in such company? Particularly in such a cursory performance? Its fugal writing prepared your ears for similar technical feats that lie at the soul of Nielsen's symphony.