Since her teenage years cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been a regular guest with The Cleveland Orchestra, and there is local pride in her international success as a concerto soloist and chamber music artist. She did not disappoint this weekend at Severance Hall with a sumptuous performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto led by guest conductor Alan Gilbert.

Alisa Weilerstein © Roger Mastroianni courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Alisa Weilerstein
© Roger Mastroianni courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The concerto, composed in 1945, is a technical tour de force, and seemed tailor-made for Weilerstein’s expansive – and expressive – cello sound. Barber develops his musical structure from relatively short motifs, developed into long American-Romantic melodies, as well as short chromatic passages obsessively repeated and modified. The traditional concerto structure was observed, including several lengthy cadenzas, all based on themes heard previously. The lyrical second movement was especially beautiful, with the solo cello in duet with the orchestral solo oboe (principal Frank Rosenwein). Barber does not shy away from dissonance, however, as in the fortissimo chord that opens the third movement’s introduction prior to the movement’s main Allegro tempo, with its jagged rhythms. Weilerstein’s big sound was put to the test, but it carried easily over the orchestra. She was also capable of great delicacy when called for. The dramatic perpetual motion of the finale built to a climax, but Barber shuts down the action, instead dissolving the texture, ending on a unison note. The performance brought the audience to its feet, resulting in a solo encore, a straightforward performance of the Bourée from Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 in C major, BWV1009.

The Barber concerto was sandwiched between two works by Antonín Dvořák. The concert opened with his symphonic poem Vodník, Op.107 (here translated as The Water Sprite, and also known as The Water Goblin). Dvořák composed five symphonic poems in the years after he completed his Symphony no. 9, “From the New World” in 1893. The first four of these works were based on grotesque folk-ballads by the Czech poet Karel Jaromír Erben. The story of The Water Sprite involves a young woman who ignores her mother’s advice not to marry a water sprite and join his underwater kingdom. The sprite and his terrestrial bride have a child. Later the girl begs to visit her mother. The sprite reluctantly agrees, but she must leave the baby with him. When the girl’s mother refuses to let her daughter return, the sprite pounds on the door. The mother demands the return of the child, which the sprite does – dead and headless.

Alan Gilbert © Roger Mastroianni courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra
Alan Gilbert
© Roger Mastroianni courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

Dvořák’s music expresses the changing scenes and emotions of the story. Alan Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra portrayed these kaleidoscopic mood swings with great conviction. Yet at twenty minutes of churn and drama, Dvořák’s music seemed overextended. It was a fine performance of a work of lesser stature in Dvořák’s catalog.

No such reservations pertained to the orchestra’s performance of Dvořák’s Symphony no. 8 in G major which closed the concert. It was a joy from beginning to end, with subtlety of dynamics and phrasing, drama when required and an inspired musical trajectory. The details of the second movement were especially appealing; for example, the dialogue passages of flute, oboe and clarinet. The third movement waltz was attractive in its lilting melodic lines. From the fourth movement’s opening trumpet fanfares to movement’s end, Gilbert and The Cleveland Orchestra gave the audience a riotously joyful thrill ride. Who could not have felt chills of excitement when those fanfares reappear later as part of the orchestral texture? This was a spectacular reading of Dvořák’s beloved masterpiece.