Cellist steals the show at Davies Hall

Alisa Weilerstein

The San Francisco Symphony played the opening passages of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B minor with big, swaying intensity on Wednesday. Still, that auspicious beginning barely hinted at the bold emotionality and gates-open communicativeness of soloist Alisa Weilerstein's performance that was about to be unleashed.

It's hard to fathom how this 2004 Columbia graduate can channel the emotional life of a work like this one, completed in 1895 by a Czech whose bighearted sentimentality seems eons away from our own age of irony. But channel she did: The 26-year-old cellist's performance at Davies Symphony Hall with guest conductor David Robertson was gripping — unobstructed, unself-conscious, straight to the heart.

Technically outstanding, too. And cagey, in that Weilerstein's shaping of each phrase and her building of a larger structure, element by element, indicated a cool, clear intellectual understanding of the piece. And yet, almost note to note and certainly with each climax, her playing felt charged with spontaneity, a natural, off-the-cuff musicality.

A lot has been written about her musical upbringing; she's the daughter of celebrated players Donald and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, violinist and pianist, respectively, with whom she tours as a trio. But the back story would seem to be receding as she emerges as one of the leading cellists of the day, a player of strength, sincerity, subtle control and genuine personality. She repeats her program June 26 at the Flint Center in Cupertino and 8 p.m. June 27 and 28 at Davies.

Wednesday, her very first passages were wrenched from the cello: stinging notes; urgent, singing effects; intensity of vibrato; every note and chord the product of deep, clear physical and emotional effort. Here and there was a rough spot, but it only added to the realness of her interpretation. And just watching the way Weilerstein had mapped out her fingerings and shifts, moving guitarlike through treacherous sequences of chords, was fascinating.

In the second movement, Dvorak lets the cellist play utterly alone for a few moments. Weilerstein, whose bow control and dynamic range are exceptional, played beyond wispy-soft. She lit into the third movement's opening passages, seeming a little fatigued, but only momentarily. And something else about her became extra clear: She is a great listener.

Half a measure before the solo entrance of associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman, Weilerstein, who had been looking at Robertson, turned toward Tichman and with a smile, joined the violinist for a buoyant duet.

In the first half of the program, Robertson led the orchestra through a crisp, luminous performance of Lutoslawski's "Mi-Parti," from 1976. The music was more than vaguely threatening, and beautiful, in its way ... and from a different planet than Dvorak. Janacek's "Taras Bulba" ended with gleaming sound-blocks, mimicking the tintinnabulations of bells.

But Weilerstein, frankly, was the show.