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Music Review

A cellist with fervor, and maturity beyond her years

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein made her local recital debut Sunday. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein made her local recital debut Sunday. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / May 7, 2008

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Like many sons and daughters of entrepreneurial parents, Alisa Weilerstein has gone into the family business. That business happens to be classical music-making at a distinguished level. Her father, Donald Weilerstein, was the founding first violinist of the Cleveland String Quartet, and her mother is the pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein.

Alisa Weilerstein grew up with music as the lifeblood of her family, not unlike her contemporary Jonathan Biss, and she is now building an impressive solo career, with recordings and a slew of dates with major orchestras. Her first performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra come next season, and Sunday afternoon she made her local recital debut in Jordan Hall, presented by Celebrity Series of Boston as part of its highly valued yet soon-to-be defunct Boston Marquee series.

Given what Weilerstein has accomplished at age 26, I'm sure no one expected a raw ball of nerves to take the stage. But even knowing the back story did not fully prepare one for the poised and mature artistry of this highly gifted young cellist. From the opening work, Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 5 (Op. 102, No. 2) played with pianist Inon Barnatan, she demonstrated not only a remarkably well-honed technical vocabulary, but also something far less common: an expressive depth and fervor that made it clear she had something important to say.

Her tone in the Beethoven was smooth, full, and graceful, and she enjoyed an easy and fluid rapport with Barnatan. But it was in Kodaly's rugged solo sonata, a work that is - or should be - her calling card, that Weilerstein truly came into her own. Sitting alone onstage, cocooned in her sound, she delivered a rapt and soulful performance of this extraordinary work. Like the Bach cello suites, Kodaly's sonata uses the resources of a single instrument to conjure a complete world, in this case suffused with the harmonic, rhythmic, and expressive essence of Hungarian folk music. Weilerstein's earthy playing, rigorous yet free, brought these folk elements to the fore, and with striking clarity in the upper registers and a deep molten tone in the cello's lowest, subterranean reaches. The energy in her playing was unflagging; the stopped chords at the end of the first movement were fired off like pistol shots.

She brought a similar concentration and intensely physical delivery to Osvaldo Golijov's rhapsodic tango-infused soliloquy for solo cello called "Omaramor," and she closed the program with Barnatan returning to the stage for a jointly sensitive reading of Chopin's Cello Sonata (Op. 65). In this case, however, the Chopin sounded a bit too similar to the Beethoven, highlighting the way that Weilerstein's strong musical personality seems to flood everything she plays. In other words, she is still grappling with the paradox of how to perform with such a distinctive individual stamp while avoiding a creeping sense of sameness; how to have a strong interpretive voice while still granting the temperature, moods, colors, and sensibilities of a work their own radically independent lives.

Plenty of performers with decades more experience have not solved this particular koan of interpretation, and her program was clearly the best debut recital of the year so far. On a more fundamental level, Weilerstein seemed to implicitly answer the challenge Isaac Stern used to pose time and again to technically gifted young players: Show the audience not just how you make music but why .

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.