CSO concert bridges musical generation gap

Alisa Weilerstein
Chicago Tribune

With the Armour Stage of Orchestra Hall decorated with Christmas wreaths and bunting, you would think the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would be serving the subscribers predictable holiday-related fare to match. Not this weekend. There is, in fact, just enough oddball repertory on the program to make it a balm for musically jaded ears.

The concert given on Thursday night represented a meeting of generations. The veteran Estonian conductor, Neeme Jarvi, who turned 80 earlier this year, presided. His soloist was the fiercely brilliant American cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who is all of 35. Age gap notwithstanding, what makes these artists kindred spirits is the commitment they share in arguing the merits of scores that, for one reason or another, languish at the fringes of the repertory.

It was that commitment, combined with alert responses from the orchestra, that made the music-making feel as festive as the stage adornments.

The program amounted to a kind of Czech-flavored sandwich, with pieces by Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak surrounding the CSO's first performance in 65 years of Samuel Barber's 1945 Cello Concerto.

This is the least-known and least-popular of the composer's concertos. Barber wrote it for the Russian-born American cello virtuoso Raya Garbousova, who premiered it in Boston in 1946 and gave the CSO's only previous performances, in 1949 and 1952. Garbousova, who died in DeKalb in 1997, was the mother of violinist and violist Paul Biss, a longtime faculty member at the Ravinia Steans Music Institute; and the grandmother of pianist Jonathan Biss.

The Cello Concerto lacks the memorable melodic inspiration of Barber's Violin Concerto and the scintillating punch of the later Piano Concerto. Its pensive themes tend to circle fretfully around themselves, refusing to break into song in the warmly neo-romantic manner most typical of Barber.

I suspect his heart wasn't in the piece when he was writing it. Still, no music with Barber's name on it is totally negligible, and, really, how many viable American cello concertos are there? So one must be grateful for Weilerstein's bringing the work back to the downtown series after a 65-year absence.

The concerto amounts to a minefield of treacherous bravura writing that requires the soloist to scamper to the top of the fingerboard and live there with consummate technical ease. Only a master cellist can make music of all that showy scrubbing; Weilerstein is Garbousova's equal, perhaps even superior, in that respect.

Swathed in a holly-red gown appropriate to the season, she traversed the awkward melodic leaps with pinpoint intonation and a huge, caramel sound that sat comfortably within the orchestral textures. She savored the barcarolle-like dialogue with Lora Schaefer's oboe in the slow movement with great tenderness of feeling. She gave us a terrific performance of a problematic piece. Jarvi and the orchestra were with her every syncopated step of the way.

I suspect the audience was applauding the cellist more than the concerto. In any case, she brought comparable grace and charm to her encore, the Bourree from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C (BWV 1009).

Read the rest of the review here