On Saturday night, Alisa Weilerstein played the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic. I have a special memory of this concerto, played by someone else, also with the Philharmonic. This other cellist was born the same year as Weilerstein, 1982.
She is Han-Na Chang, and she played the Saint-Saëns in the 1998–99 season, when she was sixteen. She was astonishing—astonishingly good. I remember feeling cheap for not standing. Why? Why didn’t I stand? Well, probably because others were not, and one hates to stand out . . .
I feel I have made up for it in subsequent years by “standing” in various writings, including this review—saying how good, how astonishing, that performance was.
Alisa Weilerstein played the Saint-Saëns No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic in 2002, when she was twenty. I did not attend that performance, unfortunately. It was outdoors in Valhalla, New York. (One would hope that something from The Ring was played on that occasion.) The Saint-Saëns concerto had not again been done by the Philharmonic until last week.
Do you like it? I like it, sort of—especially the middle movement, which is a prim, fetching minuet. The outer movements are not Grade A Saint-Saëns, I would say. (To be sure, the concerto is in one movement—it is a “through-composed” thing—but there are clear movements within the movement, if you will.)
A cellist cannot live by the Dvořák alone, granted. The Dvořák Cello Concerto is the most popular cello concerto. What else do they have, cellists who solo with orchestras? They have the Boccherini concerto, and the Haydns, and the Schumann, and the Elgar, and the Shostakoviches, and the Prokofiev Symphony-Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, and . . .
That is a good handful—a mighty handful?—but one could always ask for more. And the Saint-Saëns serves its purpose. In my view, the Schumann and Saint-Saëns concertos are both saved, sort of, by their middle movements.
My crotchets aside, Alisa Weilerstein is a brilliant player of the Saint-Saëns, as of everything else, in my experience. She has everything you need, including lyricism and virtuosity. She also has taste, which you perhaps need above all. She plays this piece with both dignity and aplomb. On Saturday night, her sound was clean and pure. It was also buzzy, when that was called for. In the course of the concerto, she put on a clinic in trilling.
There was a slip-up or two along the way, but this only confirmed that we were not listening to a studio recording, thank heaven.
There would be an encore, and I thought it might be more Saint-Saëns, instead of a Bach sarabande. (A sarabande or other slow movement by Bach is de rigueur from a violinist or cellist after a concerto, and that is an unbeatable tradition.) How about The Swan, in some arrangement that involves orchestra? The Swan is the most famous cello piece, right? Maybe?
As it happened, Weilerstein played the sarabande from Bach’s Suite in E flat, and she played it sublimely. It was a bit extended—played with, drawn out. Would she have played the sarabande that way if she had been playing the entire suite? If the sarabande had been a mere movement within the whole? I don’t know. Probably not. An encore is a solo piece, not a constituent.
Weilerstein played some of the sarabande in almost march-like fashion, I’m tempted to say. What I mean is, the rhythm was pronounced, bordering on jaunty. In any case, she never, ever violated taste, and she turned the hall into something like a sacred space.
Unless I am mistaken, the cello section looked on with great appreciation.
I have not yet mentioned the conductor, who was Jakub Hrůša, a notable Czech. He and the Philharmonic began the concert with the Symphony No. 2 by Borodin, that full-time chemist and part-time composer. (What are you accomplishing in your spare time? What am I? What are we accomplishing in our full time?) Above, I used the phrase “mighty handful.” Alexander Borodin was one of the Mighty Handful, along with Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and a few others.
Maestro Hrůša and the Philharmonic performed the Symphony No. 2 adequately. Rising above adequacy was the slow movement, which puts many instruments in the spotlight. A blue ribbon ought to go to the principal horn, who was Leelanee Sterrett.
Back home in Michigan, we have a Leelanau Peninsula. If this player had grown up there, she would be Leelanee from Leelanau.
The second half brought Dvořák—not the Cello Concerto but the Symphony No. 6. Your correspondent did not hear it, but he has the Furiant coursing through his head right now. If a person can’t dance it—I certainly can’t—he can at least think it, with pleasure.