San Antonio Symphony
From cellist Weilerstein, extraordinary depth and intensity
in Shostakovich Concerto No. 1
September 26, 2009
The greatest artists go for the
jugular. They draw blood. They change you.
Alisa Weilerstein is such an artist. With the San Antonio Symphony
under guest conductor Rossen Milanov, Weilerstein was the guest soloist
in Dmitri Shostakovich’s harrowing Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat on
the opening concert, Sept. 25, of the orchestra’s 70th anniversary
season. The Majestic Theater program opened with Antonin Dvorak’s
sparkling “Carnival” Overture and closed with Johannes Brahms’s
Symphony No. 1.
It seems almost an impertinence to identify Weilerstein as a cellist.
She does, of course, play the cello, brilliantly, and she summons from
her instrument an uncommonly rich sound enlivened with torrents of
overtones. The materiality of her instrument seems always to be
immediately present. Yet there is a sense in which that materiality
vanishes behind Weilerstein’s extraordinary interpretive depth and
emotional intensity - an intensity that attains its most exquisite
extreme in the faintest whispers.
In her first appearance with this orchestra, in 2005, Weilerstein’s
vehicle was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Concerto in D, a congenial piece that
did not allow full vent to her musicianship. The Shostakovich concerto
did. The extent to which Shostakovich’s music reflects animus against
Stalinist tyranny and stupidity is open to debate, but it seems
undeniable that he bared a troubled soul in his scores. Much of this
concerto is despairing, angry, sometimes ugly. It is also at times
achingly beautiful, with a lyricism tinged by the knowledge of
All of which Weilerstein delivered with precision. Especially memorable
were her wonderful pitch inflections and shadings of vibrato (from none
to lots) in the slow movement and, in the solo cadenza that constitutes
the entire third movement, her trajectory from gorgeous, full-throated
lyricism to blind rage.
Milanov and the orchestra gave her a shapely, cleanly detailed
backdrop, with an especially fine solo contribution by principal
hornist Jeff Garza.
Weilerstein’s generous encore was “Omaramor,” a 1991 work by the
Argentine composer Oswaldo Golijov. The title is a tribute in part to
the exiled Argentine playwright Omar del Carlo and partly to one of the
biggest hits of Argentine popular singer Carlos Gardel, “My Beloved
Buenos Aires.” The piece has aspects of tango, but also of Bach’s cello
suites. Weilerstein played it with admirable empathy.
There was much to like in
Milanov’s account of the Brahms symphony -- his beautiful extended
lines, the burnished-bronze sound he got from the orchestra, his supple
shaping of the andante, his convincing argumentation in the finale.
Stylistically, much of the performance was somewhat old-fashioned, with
slowish tempos and bottom-heavy balances. A leaner, more nimble
approach strikes me as being more consistent with the restless sense of
forward motion in the score, but that, as they say, is a matter of
opinion. The Dvorak came off swimmingly.
The orchestra was in good shape despite the summer hiatus. It was
particularly nice to see and hear Tal Perkes back in the principal
flute chair after a year’s leave, though it would be churlish not to
thank Hye Sung Choe for her splendid work in Perkes’s absence.