Cellist Alisa Weilerstein Soars with Bach and Brahms at La Jolla SummerFest

Anticipating some audience fatigue after three weeks of concerts, La Jolla SummerFest Music Director Cho-Liang Lin unleashed his secret weapon for the final chamber music program: cellist Alisa Weilerstein.

Alisa Weilerstein [photo (c) Decca-Robin Thomson]

Not that the festival has experienced any lack of fine cello playing this season—far from it. But Weilerstein offered more than excellent technique and sympathetic musicianship: she exuded charisma and intensity that dared the audience to simply sit and politely listen. Her rapturous and astonshingly detailed account of J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in C Major for solo cello, BWV 1009, that opened Wednesday’s program mesmerized the Conrad Prebys Concert Hall audience, and she held them in her power through a Brahms Trio and Quintet that followed.

Her Bach performance revealed everything, in my opinion, and the Brahms merely gilded the lily. From her bravura salute of an electric, slashing descending scale that announced the magnificent Prelude, each dance movement offered new revelations. Her crisp Allemande, defined by acrobatic leaps and resonant explosions of grand cadences, gave way to a blistering Courante whose cascading passages maintained uncanny precision. Time stopped in her ethereal traversal of the solemn Sarabande, replete with double stops whose rich overtones floated majestically in the perfect acoustics of the Prebys Concert Hall.

Her Bourées darted playfully, with each echo effect outlined in agile, painterly nuance. The sole disappointment of the closing Gigue was that it signaled the finale of this exalted journey.

Weilerstein brought all of the Bach ethos back on stage for Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A Minor, Op. 114, and fortunately her cohorts clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Inon Barnatan were breathing the same empyrean air as they strode majestically through this resplendent late Brahms composition.

Historians tell us that Brahms was inspired to write the Clarinet Trio for a stellar clarinetist he heard play in the Meiningen Orchestra, and this fellow must have had the rich, unblemished timbre and melodic finesse that McGill displayed in this performance. At the piano, Barnatan supplied gracious, pellucid accompaniment as required, but when the score called for symphonic grandeur, he unleashed volcanic reserve. For all the best reasons, this Clarinet Trio is a popular work to program, but in spite of many hearings, I have never experienced three musicians fuse their vivid individual interpretations into such transcendent unity.

Usually, closing a program with a Brahms Piano Quintet is surefire, but Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Op. 34, is a very early work, and experiencing it on the heels of his mature Clarinet Trio exposed its shortcomings. Yes, this Piano Quintet exudes youthful exuberance and offers a melodic cornucopia, but it goes on forever, overstaying its welcome. By the time Brahms wrote Opus 114 near the end of his career, he had learned to prune, to tighten his expositions, to make his developments more dramatic. At Opus 34 when he was only 29 years of age, he was still flexing his muscles and charting new territory.

Nevertheless, we heard some worthy performances: Barnatan easily took the lead through most of the quintet with his urgent, brilliant pianism, and his ardor was equaled by violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Weilerstein. The composer did not give second violinist Michelle Kim a great deal to do in this quintet, but first violinist Eugene Drucker took his ample responsibilities too lightly. He played from the same score, but his dutiful contribution gave the impression that he would have preferred to be somewhere else. Now if Glenn Dicterow had still been in town to play the first violin part, I predict we would have heard a significantly different account of this Piano Quintet.

This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2017 on Wednesday, August 23, 2017, at UC San Diego’s Conrad Prebys Concert Hall. The festival finishes with a chamber orchestra concert under the baton of David Zinman on Friday, August 25, 2017, at the Irwin Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive, San Diego.

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