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Alisa Weilerstein steals TSO’s show

05.24.12
Alisa Weilerstein
Toronto Star

By John Terauds

Toronto Symphony Orchestra

 

(out of 4)

With cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Thomas Dausgaard, conductor. Repeats Saturday. Roy Thomson Hall, 60 Simcoe St. 416-593-7769 or tso.ca

This week’s pairing of two exceptional visitors made for an extraordinarily fine concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday afternoon.

Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard, a favourite TSO guest for nearly a decade, led a program that blended the familiar (the Symphony No. 2, finished in 1877 by Johannes Brahms) with the daring (Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1959 Cello Concerto No. 1) and the unfamiliar — Sphinx, a short, evocative tone poem from 1910 by Danish composer Rud Langgaard.

The conductor gave each piece its own shape, texture and, above all, momentum. But 30-year-old American cellist Alisa Weilerstein stole the show in an electrifying performance of the Shostakovich concerto.

The piece, written for late Russian cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich, opens with an obsessive frenzy, sounding as if the cellist has turned into a Lady Macbeth desperately, anxiously trying to cleanse her bloodstained hands.

Weilerstein was all cascading hair and flying digits as she charged along, with conductor Thomas Dausgaard and the orchestra in hot, rhythmically acute pursuit.

But the real magic of Weilerstein’s memorable interpretation came with the slow, melancholy second movement and its long cadenza. Here, the cellist showed how a musician can use silence to the same powerful effect as the notes themselves.

Her pacing was slow and deliberate, keeping her audience perched on the edge of their seats.

As the cadenza neared its close, the cellist gradually wound the energy back up, welcoming back the orchestra in a final wave of furious playing.

This is not an easy piece to like if you happen to favour sweet melodies, but Weilerstein and Dausgaard, working as one, turned it into a masterful showcase of tension and release.

The Brahms symphony paled in comparison, despite being gorgeously paced and textured by the Danish conductor, and executed with great clarity by the orchestra.

Sphinx, the afternoon’s opener, was a nice prelude to the concert’s intertwined journey of light and dark — and a great argument for hearing more music by Langgaard.