The Nasher Sculpture Center’s concert series “Soundings: New Music at the Nasher” launched its 5th season with a solo recital featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein. The program focused less on the “new” and more on the “sound” in the series’ title; in particular, the deep, seductive sound of a solo cello.
Weilerstein performed nearly two hours of unaccompanied cello music for the packed house in the Nasher’s small basement lecture/recital hall (the concert was sold out). When she lifted her bow to her instrument for the first time, she closed her eyes, perhaps subconsciously inviting the audience to close their eyes as well and focus, as she was, on the sound of the instrument over which her body was draped.
In this space the sound of Weilerstien’s cello was clear, bold, and exposed. Without accompaniment of any sort, the audience could dwell exclusively on the cello’s unique qualities—its resonance and range, its grit and its power. Weilerstein is an aggressive, confident performer. She plays with abandon, attacking difficult passages fearlessly and with purpose. In the exposed space of the Nasher’s hall, flaws could not be airbrushed. But, when a slip or squeak did occur, it was generally a byproduct of daring musicality and it never distracted from the overall performance. Weilerstein drew a gorgeous, rich tone from her instrument, but there was also an honest, gritty edge to her sound; it was raw and it was beautiful.
Weilerstein opened and closed her program with two of Bach’s Suites for solo cello (No. 1 in G Major and No. 3 in C Major). Seth Knopp, the series’ artistic director, pointed out in his introduction that Bach’s solo cello suits, while certainly not new music, were incredibly innovative and new when they were originally composed. While that might be a bit of a conceptual stretch, there was definitely a fresh vibrancy to Weilerstein’s performance on Wednesday night. In the Bach Suites, Ms. Weilerstein’s superb musicality was on display; longer melodic lines sang beautifully and the unique character of each of the suite’s dances was communicated with rhythmic vibrancy and a kind of dark joy. The audience was completely engrossed.
In between the Bach suites, Weilerstein presented a lesser-known early 20th century work by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály (Sonata in B Minor for Solo Cello, 1915) and a short, tango-inspired piece called Omaramor, composed in 1991 by Osvaldo Golijov.
The Kodály sonata was riveting. For this piece, the cello’s two lowest strings were tuned down a half step (from C and G to B and F-sharp respectively), expanding the cello’s range and awakening audiences to an even deeper, more resonant sound. This sonata is insanely difficult to perform, and here Weilerstein’s virtuosity was on full display. In this piece the cello’s range is expanded, complex harmonics explored, and every technical trick imaginable (multiple-stopped chords, ponticello and pizzicato, etc.) exploited. The music itself is tonal and romantic, lush and sentimental. Weilerstein, with more than adequate technical skill, communicated the piece’s emotional weight beautifully. Again, though, it was the stunning sound of her instrument that was on display. The deep vibrations of that low B could be felt in your feet, your chair and your gut. It was a sound we’re not used to hearing, and it was powerful each time it was utilized.
From start to finish, this program offered the performer (and the listener) no fluff, no filler and no technical break. The second half of the program opened with Osvaldo Golijov’s Omaramor and (Benjamin Britten’s brief Tema Sacher. With these more modern works sandwiched between the two Bach Suites, the concert was a satisfyingly thorough and symmetrical listening experience.
Certainly the cello is an instrument uniquely capable of communicating emotion. In this recital, Weilerstein offered her audience an intimate encounter with her instrument. I left feeling like I had experienced the cello in a different and deeper way than ever before. Maybe this recital didn’t present all new music, but it instead offered some memorable new insights into one instrument’s sound.
Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Ms. Weilerstein did not perform Britten’s Tema Sacher. That was incorrect. The piece was performed between Golijov’s Omaramor and Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 3 in C Major. FrontRow regrets the error.