Young string diva is breathtaking

Alisa Weilerstein
Toronto Star

People say that, of all instruments, the cello most resembles the human voice. If that's true, then 25-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein would be Tina Turner in her prime.

Weilerstein plays classical music, but with the depth of soul and raw emotional energy of a diehard rocker. She also has a classic poise and elegance on stage that make her welcome among the starched white ties on a traditional symphony stage.

The young string diva already qualifies as a veteran, having grown up with musician parents, with whom she played regularly as part of the Weilerstein Trio, based in Boston. She made her orchestral solo debut in Cleveland at age 13 and has worked steadily ever since while completing her music studies and even getting a degree in Russian History from Columbia University in 2004.

She has performed around the world with major orchestras and top-name venues, so her Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut last night came not a moment too soon. Roy Thomson Hall was nearly at capacity in honour of her appearance on stage.

The wait until the second half of the program was worth every minute. Her rendition of Antonin Dvorak's and one grand and intimate Cello Concerto from 1895 was a treat from start to finish.

Weilerstein has a magical control over her bow, giving the sound of her cello seemingly infinite degrees of expression. She even has a way of turning a simple vibrato into a breathless flutter that she deployed to great effect in quieter sections of the first movement.

This concerto is late-Romantic music that can take a great deal of dynamic contrasts. Weilerstein always pushed towards the limits of both loud and soft, but never without justifying her actions with clear, purposeful musical phrases.

The Toronto Symphony players were in fine form, with maestro Peter Oundjian coaxing an equally rich backup performance.

People came for Weilerstein and likely left with smiles as the cello piece faded into memory. But there was much more to the program earlier in the evening - Mozart's "Prague" Symphony and a Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani from 1938 by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959).

Neither piece is a natural companion to the Dvorak concerto. The TSO had billed this as a Czech program, which is not exactly true, either: Dvorak wrote his concerto in the New World, Mozart had intended his Symphony No. 38 for a London premiere and Martinu was in Switzerland as he surveyed the gathering clouds of World War II while writing his concerto.

In fact, it's hard to find anything that ties these three works together other than them being atypical in compositional structure, relative to traditional models.

That's a pretty fussy premise for constructing a program.

Suffice to say that the program-opening Mozart suffered from some mushy bass playing and thin-sounding violins. The players warmed up eventually, but the weak start didn't do the piece justice.

The Martinu is a hair-raising piece that offers little respite for jangled nerves. Even the orchestra seemed to cower in a circle of fear around the conductor's podium and grand piano.

Toronto-based pianist Andrew Burashko brought out the nervous edge in the often virtuosic piano part, while Oundjian kept the orchestra tight an focused on the composers rhythmic and harmonic tension.

Unlike Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who was a master at building and releasing tension throughout a piece, Martinu here leaves everyone wound up to the very last chord. Only in the second movement can our hearts unclench a bit as he closes with a gentle, major chord.

Thank goodness there was Alisa Weilerstein to make us see warmth, light and life all over again after intermission.