Soloist Alisa Weilerstein, symphony up to the challenge

Alisa Weilerstein
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

A natural virtuoso hailed for her impassioned musicianship and expressive range, cellist Alisa Weilerstein is internationally renowned as one of the premiere soloists and

Alisa Weilerstein, one of the music world's brightest young talents, held a near-capacity Jones Hall audience spellbound Thursday with a dream rendition of the Antonin Dvorák Cello Concerto, every bit as passionate as it was technically brilliant.

Her exemplary solo work was enhanced by the splendid playing of the Houston Symphony, in top form under the astute direction of maestro Hans Graf. The performance brought out the qualities that make this one of Dvorák's most mature and masterful creations, as well as one of the best loved of all concertos.

Weilerstein enriched the solo lines with rich dark timbre and graceful phrasing, as well as virtuosic agility in more rapid and challenging sequences. Yet perhaps most crucial to her impact in this work was the strength of her playing, the force and purposefulness well-suited to the robust, vital quality of Dvorák's music. You saw it constantly in her highly emotive expressions, completely genuine and spontaneous, mirroring the unabashedly emotional music. That urgency remained, whether she was executing an intricate line with feverish intensity, or in more sensitive moments, as when playing the first movement's noble second theme with delicacy and warmth.

In the elegiac Adagio, Weilerstein's soulful playing became truly transporting. Passages in the instrument's lowest range revealed remarkable colors, and one descending figure took on an aspect of sobbing. She capped the movement with an artful climbing line ending in a silvery trill, all beautifully sustained.

From the first movement's imposing opening, the orchestra's tightly knit performance conveyed that force-of-nature power found in so much of Dvorák's music (as in Ludwig van Beethoven's.) Like Weilerstein, Graf sustained the sense of urgency, whether in the near-grieving mode of the second movement (composed while the composer's beloved sister-in-law was mortally ill), or the grave exuberance of the first and final movements. The second movement's woodwind choir passages were exceptionally well realized. The finale's closing measures delivered a thrilling final punch of full orchestral pyrotechnics.

The second half of the program was devoted to Sergei Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2, a major event in its own right — especially in the nearly hour-long original version, rather than the substantially abridged revision the composer devised years later. Graf and his musicians delivered Rachmaninoff's most ambitious work in high style, as an opulent orchestral showcase, stressing its dramatic moods and lush sounds.

The extended Largo opening movement is the trickiest, essentially brooding and mysterious, marked by its constant ebbing and flowing, rising and subsiding waves of sound. Graf's well-shaped reading sustained interest, with the muscular and cohesive playing from the string sections bringing out the dramatic interplay of themes.

Graf brought dash and vigor to the second movement, the work's scherzo, with its galloping main theme and skittering figures in the strings.

The Adagio third movement is renowned for one of Rachmaninoff's most beautiful melodies, indeed one of the swoon-iest tunes in all classical music - not merely beautiful, but developed in a masterful and quite progressive manner. This reading was both gorgeous and tautly controlled, shaped to build its full power.

Graf dove full tilt into the exultant finale, a Russian-festival-style explosion, played throughout with breathless fleetness, sparkle and zest - and given proper sweep in the movement's gorgeous alternate theme, ardent but with an edge.