Dallas — Alisa Weilerstein is in town for a weekend of concerts with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, playing the Elgar cello concerto. Piggybacking on that the Nasher Sculpture Center featured her in a solo recital to open the fifth season of the Soundings, New Music at the Nasher series. By “solo” she means exactly that—a complete program of works for the cello alone, with no accompanist or other collaborator.
Such a recital is a bold undertaking for the soloist and the audience alike. The soloist must be as close to perfect as possible because even the slightest error stands out in stark relief. Except for an occasional brush of an open string, her performance on Wednesday was immaculate. Also, unlike works for cello and piano, the soloist has to create the flow of the music by herself and has to be able to command the attention of the audience to bring them along on the musical journey. In this, Weilerstein completely succeeded. We hung on every note.
The gold standard for solo cello is the suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. Weilerstein opened her program with Bach’s first suite, by far the best known of the series. She closed with the third suite—not as well known but full of musical treasures. Like music of Bach’s music, the suites vanished from the concert hall until cellist Pablo Casals discovered them. Since then, mastery of the suites is a requirement for players who want to be in-demand recitalists.
There wasn’t any new music on the program, as the name of the series implies, but there were three pieces from the 20th century. In 1915, the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály wrote a challenging Sonata in B minor for solo cello that occupies a space in the repertoire just below the Bach suites.
She filled out the program with two short works, Omaramor by Osvaldo Golijov, an Argentinian composer, and Tema Sacher by Benjamin Britten.
The Britten is very short, only a theme meant for a set of variations that never materialized. Weilerstein used it as a prelude to the third Bach suite that ended the program.
Weilerstein produces a huge sound. She plays a cello by William Forster, an English luthier, that dates from 1790. You can buy one for less than $400,000, which is a lot but nowhere near the top. (Stradivarius instruments fetch millions.) She gets a multi-million dollar sound out of it. The open C string (the lowest one) filled the hall with resonance.
She plays with ferocity. Even the soft reflective passages, which are entrancing, still vibrate with energy waiting (impatiently) to be unleashed. She played the two Bach suites with an eye towards recent research into historically correct performance practices—minimal vibrato, a light touch to the bow, and properly scaled dynamics. She gave an elegant, and very clean, performance of both suites. She also caught the mood of the different movements, obviously having fun in the final gigues.
Moment of Geek: Bach’s suites have six movements that are based on dances that were popular at the time. A modern suite would contain a waltz, tango, two-step and maybe some hip-hop. Bach used a Prelude, followed by an Allemande, a Courante, a Sarabande, a middle movement that he changed out, and the final gigue (jig). That penultimate movement was sometimes a Minuet, a Bourée or Gavotte. They all end with a bouncy Gigue.
We learned what Weilerstein could do with a fortissimo in the Kodály and the Golijov. In these pieces, she launched a full frontal attack that left us in shock and awe. Many bow hairs were broken and, in both pieces, she stopped to rosin her bow to get a better bite from the strings. Of course, this is how that music should be played, but Weilerstein added an overall feeling of danger and violence.
Although this has nothing to do with the stunning musical performance she presented, she allows her long hair to fall in her face at intense moments, completely covering it. She must think that this adds to the drama of pieces like the Kodály because the problem is easily solved with a couple of bobby pins (60 for $.95 online). The problem with this is that it is distracting to the audience. Afterwards, comments about her hair were interspersed with the rapturous compliments.
It is probably better to hear ecstatic comments about the music.