Young cellist’s eloquent debut a high point at CSO’s Dvorak Festival

Alisa Weilerstein
Chicago Tribune

When the dust clears from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's Dvorak Festival, someone really should make Mark Elder an honorary Czech. The British conductor appears to have this music in his blood, if not by heritage then by artistic adoption. And he has the skills to inspire the CSO to play Dvorak better than just about any orchestra this side of the Moldau.

The warmly sympathetic readings he directed Thursday night at Orchestra Hall were distinguished above all by a natural feel for the ebb and flow of glorious melody that set Dvorak apart from his German contemporaries.

Elder began his program with "In Nature's Realm," one of several rarely heard concert overtures (and tone poems) he is sprinkling throughout the festival. He pointed up its scenic qualities through an emphasis on local color, soft nuances and felicitous balancing of strings and winds.

Thus far he has introduced festival audiences to two exceptionally gifted young string soloists. The latest was cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who made her CSO debut in an intense and eloquent account of Dvorak's Cello Concerto.

Her tone is huge and deep, and she has a wonderfully pliable way of shaping the singing lyricism. The 27-year-old cellist spanned the full emotional range from poignancy to ebullience, bringing out an abundance of sentiment while avoiding sentimentality.

Elder had the orchestra players listening just as acutely to the cellist as she did to them, witness her tender duet with the clarinets in the slow movement. She tore into the outer movements with unbridled vigor, pulling back to a rapt hush to savor contrasting melodies.

I found myself listening with senses heightened to a masterpiece so familiar that it is easy to take for granted. The crowd was up on its feet in stentorian appreciation.

Elder was back after intermission with a Dvorak Eighth Symphony that felt fresh and alive and allowed the music to make its case without distortion, unlike Michael Tilson Thomas' brash travesty of a performance here a year ago.

Elder had the divided violins playing with lilting charm in the third movement, which he treated with all due lightness and flexibility. Silken strings, characterful winds, gleaming brass: He had the orchestra sounding in top fettle, a few horn bobbles aside.