by Daniel Hathaway
The Elgar concerto was on the agenda for Cleveland native and international cello heroine Alisa Weilerstein’s most recent homecoming. On Thursday evening at Severance Hall, Weilerstein put her individual stamp on that iconic work in a penetrating and daring performance with The Cleveland Orchestra and Giancarlo Guerrero.
Inadequately rehearsed for its 1919 premiere by Felix Salmond with Elgar conducting the London Symphony, the work eventually became one of the premier cello concertos in the repertoire. Its reputation was sparked by a famous recording made by British cellist Jacqueline du Pré in1965. Du Pré, who introduced the Elgar to Cleveland Orchestra audiences in 1967 before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, seemed to have a proprietary hold on the work for many years (rumor has it that Mstislav Rostropovich dropped it from his repertory after hearing du Pré’s recording).
Alisa Weilerstein may be the most recent owner of the piece. Her arresting playing showed deep feeling for Elgar’s inner musical language and the sweetly elegiac mood the concerto captures of an England that had just survived a devastating war but would never be the same. The broad unison melodies of Victorian and Edwardian times still appear now and again, but they sound like echoes from an unrecoverable past.
Weilerstein seized every mood change in this mercurial piece, produced stunning pizzicatos and hushed pianissimos, and played stratospheric high notes with unflagging accuracy. Though up against a large orchestra, she projected her warm, unforced tone through the ensemble with the same kind of presence her purple gown registered against the sea of black and white-clothed musicians.
Guerrero was quick to catch all the complicated transitions in the concerto, only allowing himself a few dramatic gestures at big climaxes. After a standing ovation slowly accumulated, Weilerstein rewarded her local fans with a finely nuanced performance of a Bach Sarabande.
The evening began and ended with twentieth-century works. Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for chime and string orchestra was all about descending lines in the context of an A-minor scale. Its fascination and complexity stemmed from the way in which those lines descended, at different rates of speed from top to bottom of the string section, creating a web of shifting diatonic harmonies.
Though essentially static, Cantus contains a lot of built-in drama, particularly in terms of whether or not the very slow moving bass section will ever make it to its destination of low A. They did, and at the end of the piece, the recurring chime was left ringing out of the final chord for a long, haunting moment.
At the other end of the concert came John Adams’s 1984-1985 Harmonielehre, a three-movement essay in what Philip Glass called “repetitive music” and which has frequently been mislabeled as “minimalism.” Written for the San Francisco Symphony when Adams was composer in residence, the piece is playful if not mischievous in its titles.
The whole work takes its name from the German word for a harmony textbook. The first movement has no title at all. The second, The Anfortas Wound, refers to the incurable blow suffered by a character in Wagner’s Parsifal, while the third, “Meister Eckart and Quackie,” arises out of the composer’s vision of the medieval theologian “floating through space with his daughter Emily (nicknamed Quackie) on his back whispering secrets of grace in his ear.”
Caffeinated, nervous and loud, the first movement turns the orchestra into a machine that punches out repetitive rhythms over slowly changing metric patterns. It calms down only to regain energy later. The rising lines in the second movement do exactly the opposite of Pärt’s descending scales — here they gain in intensity until an almost painful burst of sound dissipates into the pathos of softly screeching violins. The third movement returns to the ethos of the first.
In 2014, Harmonielehre seems dated, and at forty minutes in length, outstays its ability to support its material, however sophisticated its architecture. By the third movement, the sound had risen to levels that were both painful and tedious.
But the orchestra played Adams’s music with energy and commitment, cheered on by Giancarlo Guerrero’s enthusiastic conducting. Special accolades were due to the large percussion section, pianist Joela Jones and celestist Carolyn Warner, who were on the front lines of exposure to repetitive motion syndrome. This music can’t be easy on the tendons. Is it fun to play?
Published on ClevelandClassical.com November 8, 2014.
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