New CSO soloist finds Dvorak insights; Cellist Weilerstein takes daring approach

Alisa Weilerstein
Chicago Sun-Times

The goal of a composer-themed festival is to dig deep and try to find lessons, patterns and connections through immersion in a single creative voice that might not be apparent in the occasional performance or listening.

When the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announced a festival of the works of Antonin Dvorak, there were probably many who thought that this might be pushing the festival concept a bit much.

But under conductor Mark Elder's passionate leadership, with Chicago debuts of two extraordinary string soloists and with key chamber music and vocal components still to come, the Dvorak Festival already has more than made its case for the Czech composer as an artist of depth and range as well as popularity and nationalism.

Thursday night at Symphony Center, the CSO began with a once staple and now mostly unplayed overture, "In Nature's Realm," written in 1891 just before Dvorak moved to the United States. In it, he's heard working on the evocations of Bohemian forests and spirits that he would perfect several years later in his great operas.

One would think that the Cello Concerto would, in contrast, be wholly familiar, so popular has the work been almost since its composition in New York in 1895. But so daring was the playing of soloist Alicia Weilerstein and so committed the partnership of Elder and the CSO that Dvorak's genius for complex creation as well as spinning out winning melodies was almost palpable.

With a huge, almost athletic sound, Weilerstein, 26, somehow combines intense physicality with a deep intellectualism. Old and much loved tunes seemed to be being written on the spot and there was real excitement in the air.

In rehearsing the Civic Orchestra earlier this week, Elder suggested that Dvorak's much-played "From the New World" Symphony No. 9 would "sound better if you played it as if you had never heard it before." Surely the same concept was at work with the CSO and the preceding 1889 Symphony No. 8, which closed the program Thursday. Without losing any of its infectious and buoyant spirit, we could also hear dark moves in directions that would be extended later by Sibelius. Principal flute Mathieu Dufour led all winds in tremendous parts and solos.