Alisa Weilerstein has audience on a string with her cello magic

Alisa Weilerstein
Daily Telegraph

There's a good reason why 34-year-old American cellist Alisa Weilerstein should be dubbed “the new Jacqueline du Pre”.

After all Daniel Barenboim chose her for his first recording of the Elgar cello concerto since the legendary albums he made with his wife in the 1960s.

But while Weilerstein admits du Pre is her cello hero and they do have in common that riveting intensity and passion in their playing, coupled with prodigious technique and the ability to make each note mean something, the young New Yorker is showing the world that hers is a talent that only comes along once in a very long while.

In Sydney we’ve seen her with Sydney Symphony Orchestra in 2011 performing Prokofiev and again two years later with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra stunning us with Shostakovich.

Even more remarkable was her 2014 recital in the intimate Utzon Room at the Opera House which brought home what a stupendous musician she is.

So her return here to perform Dvorak’s cello concerto — perhaps the greatest of them all — was a concert not to be missed. It’s a work that has everything, from the Bohemian melodic surges of the first movement to a yearning adagio and a toe-tapping Czech folk dance-inflected finale.

It demands much of the soloist, with extraordinary double-stopped runs and gigantic heroic gestures which range from the bottom to the top of the fingerboard.

Weilerstein and her recently-acquired Montagnana cello seem almost as one as she plays, weaving and throwing her head back or looking at concertmaster Andrew Haveron or conductor Brett Dean.

Weilerstein made three appearances in the concert, opening the first half perched up in the choir seats performing Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Sacher Variation for unaccompanied cello, one of several variations by various composers on a theme by Benjamin Britten dedicated to Swiss conductor Paul Sacher.

This acted as a seamless introduction to the other piece on the program, Lutoslawski’s dramatic Symphony No. 3, which was written at a time of great turmoil in his homeland during the struggles of the Solidarity movement against a repressive Communist regime.

Here the four-note recurring blast of chords can be likened to the fist of the regime crushing the freedom expressed elsewhere in this remarkable score. At times the orchestra is instructed to play ad lib until the conductor brings them back to the score.

The result is an intense work which oscillates between rich and unusual soundscapes and floating ethereal passages interrupted by the brutal four chord motif. This was a triumphant performance by Dean, one of our foremost composers and violists who knows an orchestra from the inside out.

After the glories of the Dvorak concerto, which featured some beautiful solo and duet passages from hornist Robert Johnson and the SSO’s top-notch woodwind department, Weilerstein made her third appearance for an encore, an eloquent and elegant performance of the sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No 3.
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