Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Review: Alisa Weilerstein performs Elgar | Dallas Symphony Orchestra | Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center

Taken by Force

The Dallas Symphony and cellist Alisa Weilerstein are divine on Elgar's Cello Concerto, but the DSO is too big with Fauré.

published Thursday, November 20, 2014

Photo: Zachary Maxwell
Soprano Susanna Phillips
Photo: Larry Lapidus
Baritone Hugh Russell

Dallas — The Dallas Symphony took a pause with last weekend’s concerts. Instead of massive and serious symphonies Music Director Jaap van Zweden decided to show us how he conducts subtle and gentle music and the effect was quite impressive.

Elgar’s Cellos Concerto is still a massive work, but one in a reflective mood. It was the last of the composer’s big efforts and looks backwards. His music was already sounding dated and his works were programmed less frequently. World War I had just ended and Europe was victorious but exhausted. This was no time for a flashy concerto. That is not to say his Cello Concerto lacks fireworks; it is replete with them. Only a fine cellist at the top of their game can play it without sounding stressed.

Alisa Weilerstein is such a cellist. She had already impressed in an earlier appearance with the DSO.  She was also marvelous in a recent solo recital in the Soundings: New Music at the Nasher series at the Nasher Sculpture Center.

In this appearance, Weilerstein pulled her hair back so that we could see her expressive face (something she didn’t do at the Soundings concert), and what a treat it was. You could see, as well as hear, how she felt about every phrase.

Technically, she was flawless. Elgar asks for a lot and she delivered all of it. Van Zweden was an effective partner. He never covered her sound. Of course, that would not be an easy task because her sound is so huge. 

Incongruously, the second half of the program was devoted to the music of Gabriel Fauré. The DSO played his well-known Pavane and ended with his gentle and modest setting of the Requiem

Although the two composers were only a dozen years apart in age, they were completely different. Elgar was self-taught while Fauré studied with the great French composers of the era. Musically, Elgar went for big gestures with large orchestras while Fauré preferred to scale down. However, both composers pointed to the future of music and have come to be regarded as bridge figures from the romantic era to the 20th century.

Van Zweden chose to perform the Pavane in its full orchestration (it was originally for piano). However, that “full” orchestration is much more modest, strings and winds in pairs, than what Elgar used for the cello concerto. The DSO also used the optional choral parts, singing some added-on, and rather silly, words by the cousin of the Countess to which the work was dedicated.

Van Zweden caught the rocking motion of Fauré’s conception of the older dance form, although research claims that Fauré himself played it noticeably quicker.

Fauré’s Requiem is probably his best-known piece and it has survived countless indifferent to appalling performances by choral societies and church choirs alike. Like the Pavane, it is written for modest forces. Later, the orchestration was expanded for a larger orchestra.

The Requiem is unique in that he uses organ, as well as a string section of divided violas and cellos, with only a sparingly used single violin section, for most of the work. He later expanded to a full orchestra as performances began to move out of the church and into the concert hall. But even in this expanded orchestration, he kept his original concept of featuring the darker-hued string instruments. Thus, it was quite a surprise to see the full first and second violin sections seated on the stage for the performance.

Van Zweden would have delivered a more authentic performance if he told half of the violins to stay home and added more violas. (Many violinists also play viola and could have stayed.) He also used the full chorus, which could have easily been cut in half. Both soloists, soprano Susanna Phillips and baritone Hugh Russell, were a little too much on the stentorian side. Thus, the whole performance was bigger than Fauré’s intention.

When we were in the moment, none of this really mattered, except to purists. The sound was glorious, always balanced, and van Zweden never exceeded modest dynamic levels. His tempi were impeccable and his pacing excellent. Overall, it has to be admitted that it was a guilty pleasure to hear this requiem with such large forces. Thanks For Reading

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Taken by Force
The Dallas Symphony and cellist Alisa Weilerstein are divine on Elgar's Cello Concerto, but the DSO is too big with Fauré.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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