This past weekend's Cleveland Orchestra concerts were sensational, not just in the metaphorical sense of being brilliantly performed, but also literally, from the wisps of descending scales of Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten to the thunderous pounding of John Adams's Harmonielehre. Between these two pieces, Cleveland favorite Alisa Weilerstein gave an introspective reading of Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.65. The guest conductor was Giancarlo Guerrero, music director of the Nashville Symphony and principal guest conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for their multi-week residencies in Miami, Florida, each year. Guerrero elicited the best from all concerned in these three 20th century spanning masterpieces.

Alisa Weilerstein © Jamie Jung
Alisa Weilerstein
© Jamie Jung

When Benjamin Britten died on 4 December 1976, Arvo Pärt was living in his native communist-ruled Estonia. Britten's music had made a strong impression on Pärt and inspired his Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell. Like many others of Part's works, the Cantus seems simple and harmonically static. The six-minute work is built on a descending A minor scale, assembled with a formula to create an endlessly overlapping texture, beginning pianissimo in the top register of the first violins and making a very long crescendo as other instruments are added in slower note values and in lower octaves until the double basses join close to the end in very long notes. A single bell tolls periodically through the piece. This is a work that, despite the simplicity of musical materials and their calculated assembly, never fails to move the listener. It is a lament, yet at the end there is a sense of completion, of fulfillment in an A minor chord. There is a measure of silence at the end during which the bell is left to fade away to silence. With seeming simplicity, however, Pärt's music also presents performance challenges: pitches and rhythms must be played with complete accuracy to achieve the desired effect. Giancarlo Guerrero kept the performance taut, with a sense of devastating inevitability. The audience was rapt throughout. During the bows, Guerrero gave the bell player a solo acknowledgement.

Alisa Weilerstein is a Cleveland native who made her Cleveland Orchestra solo debut at age 13 in 1995. She has subsequently risen to star status in the classical music world. Her performance at this concert of Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto was controlled, introspective and deeply felt. Elgar completed the work in 1919, the last of his compositional masterpieces. It is a somber work, reflecting Elgar’s world view after the devastation of World War I. Although there are four movements, they are each relatively brief, with the first and second connected, as are the third and fourth. After a solemn introduction, a rocking them in 6/8 meter is played first in the cello section, then taken up by the soloist. Weilerstein and Guerrero favored an intimate approach, with full, but not bombastic, climaxes. The second scherzo movement, with its perpetual sixteenth-note figurations was fleet and light. The Adagio third movement was the highlight of this performance, with Weilerstein’s lyrical playing showing utmost subtlety of phrasing and dynamics. Elgar’s fourth movement is not as inspired as the third, trooping along with an almost march-like regularity. Elgar’s orchestration is sensitive to the acoustic properties of the cello, and throughout this performance the balances were excellent. The ending of the concerto had a dramatic desolation.

Alisa Weilerstein was called back repeatedly. She offered an encore, the Sarabande from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite in C major, BWV 1009. Her phrasing and attention to Bach’s silences were gorgeous.

John Adams’s 1985 Harmonielehre has become an iconic standard of the late 20th century orchestral repertoire, with at least three commercial recordings and regular live performances. This was the Cleveland Orchestra’s third performance of the work; the first was in 1991 with Adams himself conducting. It must also be one of the loudest pieces in the repertoire, with a huge orchestra including a very large percussion battery. From the opening pounding chords of the first movement to the blazing fanfares at the end of the third movement,  Harmonielehre (“Harmonic Studies”, a play on the title of a harmony textbook written by Arnold Schoenberg) glitters, shimmers, swirls and barely pauses from its relentless activity. The orchestration is extraordinary in its use of instruments to create new sounds, yet fitting into a tonal harmonic package with the urgency of minimalist rhythmic patterns. Although it was thrilling – recordings cannot do justice to this work – after a while the sheer volume of sound started to seem oppressive and off-putting. There was nothing lacking in the Cleveland Orchestra’s performance, however; it was sensational.