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Weilerstein is in peak form as cellist

12.08.08
Alisa Weilerstein
Philadelphia Inquirer

Though still only 26, cellist Alisa Weilerstein is becoming a regular Philadelphia presence, invariably striding onto the stage with an eager air of "Look what I've discovered this time!"

That keeps you coming back to her concerts, even with snowy Saturday weather to navigate en route to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park - the first stop in a recital tour that includes New York's Zankel Hall tomorrow and San Francisco Thursday. And the discoveries? The seldom-heard 1991 Omaramor by the now-popular Osvaldo Golijov, plus a distinctively smart approach to Beethoven.

Weilerstein was in peak form technically, poetically and intellectually. Overall, her music-making with pianist Inon Barnatan had broad, expansive tempos and daringly long rhetorical pauses - maybe not the safest approach with a not-necessarily-classical family audience. But never did listener attention flag. And how could it? Weilerstein has taken on maturity without losing her youth, an entrancing combination.

Beethoven often shows what work musicians have been doing and what lies ahead. And in the slow movement of the composer's Cello Sonata No. 5 Op. 102 No. 2, Weilerstein's sound was intense yet restrained and relatively free of vibrato, creating an effect wholly appropriate to the emotional temperature of the music, and one that might be described as an ethereal laser beam. I've never heard anything quite like it. The first movement, though, revealed her tendency (a waning one) to play hard into her cello in ways that gives her presence magnetism but leaves her chords somewhat indistinct and colorless.

In that respect, Chopin's Sonata for Cello and Piano Op. 65 was questionable programming: The cello competes with highly developed piano writing that inevitably prompts Weilerstein to dig into her strings. But excess was only occasionally apparent. And with that came an insistent conviction, revealing a piece furiously packed with incident that also walks the line between such apparently mutually exclusive emotional states as despair and charm.

Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello and the Golijov, on each side of the intermission, were great counterparts, showing composers of different generations and nationalities tapping the power of grassroots song (Kodaly with Hungarian folk music, Golijov with Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel) with barbarically forceful creative freedom.

Weilerstein commented how the Kodaly can sound improvised; in her hands, both pieces did, thanks to bold phrasing that almost exerted a gravitational force - when not having a weightlessness almost too airy to be real.