The New York Times Previews Alisa Weilerstein’s ‘Fragments’
Alisa Weilerstein’s latest project is a series of staged solo recitals that weave Bach’s cello suites with newly commissioned works.
By David Allen
Meet “Fragments,” a project whose first installment — of six — Weilerstein will perform at Zankel Hall on April 1. Certain aspects of it may be familiar. She will be there, playing solo. She will perform a Bach suite in its entirety, and she will play it with her typical, heartfelt passion. She will offer new music: quite a lot of it, selected from works by 27 composers she has commissioned.
But this project is intended to reimagine what a cello recital can be, to challenge some of the conventions that Weilerstein thinks might inhibit a listener’s immediate response to the music, and to add layers of theatricality to the arguably staid traditions of the concert hall, in an acceptance that a musician is, after all, performing on a stage.
“There’s a lot of things that classical music does uniquely well, and it’s important to preserve those things,” Weilerstein said. “I do think, though, that we clearly have a problem, that we are not connecting with enough people, and that we are relying too much on our old models of presenting, especially when it comes to new music.”
At first glance, “Fragments” might appear to be another of Weilerstein’s explorations of Bach, a successor to her all-in-one-night performances of the six suites, her emotive recording of them on the Pentatone label and her pandemic streaming series. But Weilerstein thinks of it not as “a new approach to Bach,” she said, rather “a celebration of the really disparate voices in contemporary classical music,” with Bach as a common reference point.
So “Fragments” is not, thankfully, another addition to the increasingly passé genre of “response” programming, in which composers are commissioned to write works on the dispiriting condition that they must speak to a piece by the masters of the past. Having scoured the internet to survey the new-music scene, and consulted with past collaborators including Osvaldo Golijov and Matthias Pintscher, Weilerstein invited 28 composers to participate. The 27 who agreed — including Tania León, Joan Tower, Carlos Simon and Daniel Kidane — make up a roster that is remarkably diverse demographically and stylistically, but almost all of them asked if they should write with specific reference to Bach, Weilerstein recalled. She left the choice up to them.
“Some did,” she said, “and some very much did not.”