Alisa Weilerstein reaches poetic heights with Dvorak and Cleveland Orchestra

11.20.09
Alisa Weilerstein, Cleveland Orchestra
Cleveland Plain Dealer

By Zachary Lewis

Several aspects of the Cleveland Orchestra's program this weekend could have served as the featured attraction: a world premiere, a conductor's debut, an orchestral showpiece.

Leave it to Alisa Weilerstein, though, cellist and hometown girl extraordinaire, to outshine them all with Dvorak's Cello Concerto and handily steal the show at Severance Hall.

Not that she's an attention hog. No, it's just that Weilerstein, a Cleveland native now acclaimed around the world, is an artist of uncommon expressive powers, one who employs her instrument not as a tool but as an extension of her voice. When she takes the stage, even the most well-known of scores becomes a new adventure.

Riding what may be her ideal musical vehicle, Weilerstein unveils the many facets of her artistic personality. In addition to her technical accomplishment and deep knowledge of the score, she demonstrates playful, lyrical, and spellbinding sides, conveying solo and subordinate material with equal fervor.

And that's just the opening. In the Adagio, listeners partake of her mellifluous offering as if it were Communion, and in the Finale, she brings free, pulsating energy to a rendition full of fire but without brimstone. Throughout, conductor Jonathan Nott, in his Cleveland debut, keeps the orchestra taut and alert, while the horns make uniquely cohesive contributions.

Nott and the orchestral showpiece, Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra," come in a close second after Weilerstein. Leading from memory, the principal conductor of Germany's Bamberg Symphony Orchestra turns in a reading high on momentum and drama if occasionally too light in weight.

Although "Also Sprach" is based on the writings of Nietzsche, it isn't philosophy that interests Nott. Instead, he zeros in on the music's visceral potential, guiding a whirlwind tour of Strauss's mystical sonic realm.

Everyone has an idea of how the famous "Sunrise" portion should sound. To this listener, Nott's account seems unjustly hurried. But no quibbles here with the ensuing movements, in which the conductor gives the strings license to sing at will and lets them show off their phenomenal sense of ensemble.

In the "Science" music, Nott crafts a gripping crescendo, beginning with eerie stillness and culminating in a writhing contrapuntal peak. Every section of the orchestra is engaged in the journey, displaying individual or collective virtuosity.

Concertmaster William Preucil makes a dashing leader in the "Dance Song," presiding over a high-flying scene readily evocative of total immersion in sensuousness. But as the piece draws to its cogent close, it's the flutes who lend the performance its serene, otherworldly aura.

Julian Anderson's "Fantasias" is considerably less compelling. A few piquant gestures aside, the new five-movement score by the orchestra's London-based former Young Composer Fellow is frustratingly homogenous, forgoing lyricism and contrast in near-steady pursuit of spiky textures and shrill tones. Where Weilerstein and Nott invite embrace, Anderson shuns it.