Cellist earns 'genius' label with her spectacular skill

Alisa Weilerstein
Pioneer Press

By Rob Hubbard


Is it possible to be a genius of the heart? One generally reserves the "genius" label for great minds that can address challenges in extraordinarily creative ways. But cellist Alisa Weilerstein seems to have earned her lucrative MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" by letting her heart speak through her hands.

Her eloquence emerged in an exquisite performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto with the Minnesota Orchestra on Thursday morning. Tackling a tremendously difficult work in the company of guest conductor Kristjan Jarvi and the orchestra, Weilerstein displayed a fascinating blend of strength, gentleness and imagination, her tremendous technique almost as impressive as her emotional depth.

The Shostakovich concerto shared the program with two other 20th-century works by Russian-born composers: Igor Stravinsky's Symphony in Three Movements and Sergei Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances." Rarely will you hear a performance of the Stravinsky symphony so acutely attuned to his erratic rhythms and sparse, unsettling exchanges. Jarvi was a graceful, energetic dancer on the podium, establishing a palpable rapport with the musicians in his Minnesota Orchestra debut.

It says something about Weilerstein that she can put her own stamp on a demanding work written for and premiered by the 20th century's greatest cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich. He was the first soloist capable of bringing Shostakovich's complex, finger-twisting vision to life, but Weilerstein's interpretation was quite different from his. She brought out the dark ballad lurking in the second movement, her muted pianissimos like a distant cry, her high harmonics haunting.


But she was never more gripping than on the unaccompanied third movement, her quiet power building into a storm of hyperactive urgency. The music was furious and frantic, but Weilerstein was astoundingly precise, compelling audience members to lean forward breathlessly until things came careening to a conclusion on the mad circus parade of a finale. Velvet-toned French horn soloist Herbert Winslow was also exceptional, but Weilerstein made clear that she's a very special cellist with a unique brand of genius.