'Most promising' indeed

Alisa Weilerstein
The Times-Picayune

Did a 25-year-old cellist deliver the season's best performance on Tuesday?

That's a hard question to answer with so many concerts upcoming, but Alisa Weilerstein certainly unleashed her passions and those of a cheering audience at the University of New Orleans recital hall. She also demonstrated why critics and fellow musicians have dubbed her the most promising cellist of her generation.

From the opening notes of Beethoven's Sonata in C Major, Op. 102, Weilerstein took listeners to another world, one in which all of life's most important matters can be captured with four strings, a bow, and a pianist ready to chase where few classical musicians dare to go.

This was a polish-be-damned account, one that rushed and lingered by turns, pushing the expressive possibilities of articulation to delightful extremes -- from arching legato sighs to notes as pointed as a rim-shot on a snare.

Accompanied by her mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, the young cellist smashed the plaster bust that encases the great German composer, revealing him to be a musical radical and arch-Romantic. That happens to be a pretty good description of Weilerstein, too.

At Tuesday's concert, which included works by Zoltan Kodaly, Leos Janacek and Sergei Prokofiev, she gave fresh notice that we're seeing the end of the score-bound, finger-wagging approach that has threatened to turn a vibrant art form into academic dust.

Weilerstein has her chops in order, of course, but she's the kind of player who instantly transcends the gee-whiz virtuosity that's commonplace among today's conservatory grads.

Throughout the concert, she reached for the emotional core of individual pieces. That was most apparent in her hallucinatory account of Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello, a 35-minute, three-movement test that she tackled without sheet music. Her sustained, emotionally searing performance reminded me of other dramatic trials: the extended saxophone solos of John Coltrane, the soprano's mad scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor."

Folk elements were most apparent in the fast, final movement, when Weilerstein's cello often suggested the sound of bagpipes and fiddles, penny whistles and guitars -- a whole gypsy caravan playing feverish music by moonlight.

For all that, this wasn't a perfect show.

On piano, Vivian Weilerstein's light touch and gentle, exploratory approach made room for her daughter's improvisatory wildness -- and was perfectly suited to bringing out the fairy tale qualities of Janacek's "A Tale."

But at other times, she deferred too much. Prokofiev's Op. 119 sonata should be a dialogue between equals, with both musical partners driving the rhythms in a work that veers between romantic yearning and sardonic toy soldier marches. I couldn't help but compare Tuesday's off-balance account with the roaring, full-blooded engagement exhibited by David Finckel and Wu Han, a husband-and-wife team that played the piece at Tulane University in April 2007.