It is always a promising night when an internationally renowned soloist visits the Davies Symphony Hall, and last night cellist Alisa Weilerstein lived up to that promise, truly captivating to watch. It wasn’t just her technical and tonal precision that impressed, but also her impassioned playing that made it almost impossible to take your eyes off her.

Alisa Weilerstein © Jamie Jung
Alisa Weilerstein
© Jamie Jung

Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor is like a thoughtful discourse which emerged from a period in his life after he moved with his family from Dresden to Dusseldorf. There was a lot of unhappiness around this time with domestic disturbances and unease from the move and one can hear these reflected in the music. From the outset, the San Francisco Symphony, led by Pablo Heras-Casado,set the tone – sombre and brooding. The cello then entered, with Weilerstein not holding back her vibrato, which coloured the melodies beautifully. Her legatos were fluid and smooth while her marcatos were nothing less than. Her care for dynamic expression was consistent throughout. The only slightly disappointing aspect of the performance was in the second movement where a duet between her and Michael Grebranier (principal cellist), where I wished that his cello was more audible.

The other offerings of the night were equally well executed, starting with Mozart’s Symphony no. 29 in A major. The difficulty in performing Mozart is often in finding the right balance between technical mastery, the right kind of articulations and just the right dose of expressiveness. Tricky, but this poses no problem for the orchestra which tuned into Mozartian character right from the outset, with accents and articulation superbly executed. It was also pleasant to be able to hear the all the layers of harmony being played without obscuring the melodies, and especially to be able to hear the bass notes of the cellos grounding the rest of the orchestra. The second movement was elegant, as though the players were singing the melodies through their instruments, flowing just beautifully. The symphony closed with a spirited fourth movement with impressive rapid notes from the strings, and a unified gusto which truly whetted our appetites for the rest of the evening.

The final offering was Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor. Sometimes, after listening to the canon of classical music from Austro-German composers, one can quite easily predict where or when a phrase would end or where a melody would go. This makes it so refreshing to hear a Czech composer’s voice in the way that he injects Bohemian influences into his music. In his Seventh, it is as though Dvořák has a lot to say with ample material being developed in each of the movements. The SFS certainly did it justice. Brass textures and flute trills coloured the opening movement, as if painting a landscape, dramatic brooding giving way to pastoral joviality. In contrast, the second movement had an intimate feel, the woodwinds opening with a quiet melody against string pizzicatos. The scherzo's catchy cross-rhythms instantly grabbed us, while the finale had moments where it could squarely be classified as head-banging, confirmed by the discreet nodding by concert-goers. The final D major close was solemn and weighty and appropriately greeted by the audience to conclude a memorable evening.