A Concert, Nearly Canceled, Keeps a Rising Star Afloat

10.02.11
Alisa Weilerstein
The New York Times

By Zachary Woolfe

The beloved concert spot Bargemusic, moored near the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo, floats serenely, with a cozy wood-lined interior and a temperamental toilet. It is so improbable and distinctive that it seems a small miracle each time a recital there goes off successfully.

Those successes have piled up. The barge hosts well over 200 concerts a year, featuring a fine mix of performers, including the occasional celebrity. On Friday Alisa Weilerstein, a fast-rising young cellist and a recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, played a program of Dvorak and Ives with her parents in their regular incarnation as the Weilerstein Trio.

Until just a few hours before the concert it seemed that it wouldn’t happen at all, since the barge’s perpetual miracles last week ran up against that most immovable of opponents: the city’s fire code.

On Wednesday a representative of the barge’s landlord, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, found a problem with the gangway leading from the emergency exit behind the stage that had long been considered inadequate. Fire Department officials cited Bargemusic over the issue and stopped public performances until the violation was fixed. Cancellations were initially announced through the weekend, but a scramble to get a replacement gangway installed and approved finished in time for Friday’s concert. (Last Wednesday and Thursday’s programs are being rescheduled.)

Evidently many people got word that the Friday show had been canceled. Here, as a result, was the extraordinary sight of Ms. Weilerstein, who these days plays to sold-out crowds in halls like the Philharmonie in Berlin, not just in an intimate setting but also before an audience of only 50 or so.

It was hard to notice anyone onstage but Ms. Weilerstein. Her father, Donald Weilerstein, is a violinist, and her mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a pianist. Both are noted players and teachers. But Alisa is a star.

She met the works’ challenges with ease. Near the end of Dvorak’s “Dumky” Trio she built an amazingly strong tremolo out of nothing, with the control she gets from holding her bow daringly far along the wood. She produces remarkable pizzicatos, plucking the strings with both warmth and penetrating power.

Her technical abilities serve a taste for sweep and intensity; she performs with soulful expression and physical abandon. On occasion in the “Dumky” she took this dramatic gift a bit too far, with excessive vibrato and ponderous bowing, as if she were playing in italics.

But as she settled in, her performances grew more natural, with rhythmic swing in Ives’s Piano Trio and astonishing eloquence in Dvorak’s Piano Quartet No. 1 (with Juan Miguel Hernandez on viola). Here, as in all her best work, her playing was an inspired combination of passion and control.