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15.4.11

St. Petersburg Philharmonic

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Shostakovich, Cello Concerto No. 1 / Symphony No. 1, M. Rostropovich, Philadelphia Orchestra, E. Ormandy
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia in Russian History, and her Russian specialization has continued this month. She is playing Shostakovich's first cello concerto on tour right now with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, the orchestra that premiered the work in 1959, when its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, played it in Leningrad. The group came to Strathmore on Tuesday night, with conductor Yuri Temirkanov, whose tenure with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra we enjoyed for many years, leading his longtime "other band" in Rimsky-Korsakov's dynamic Russian Easter Overture and a heavy-handed Brahms fourth symphony.

Other Articles:

Joe Banno, Temirkanov’s appearance at Strathmore reminds Washington of what it’s missing (Washington Post, April 14)

Tim Smith, Temirkanov leads St. Petersburg Philharmonic in high-powered concert at Strathmore (Baltimore Sun, April 13)

---, Temirkanov: Sounding upbeat (Baltimore Sun, April 9)

Matthew Guerrieri, St. Petersburg Philharmonic brings precision to Symphony Hall (Boston Globe, April 11)

Keith Powers, Alisa in wonderland (Boston Herald, April 9)

Andy Thomason, St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra stuns with epic evening (Daily Tar Heel, April 6)

Susan Isaacs Nisbett, St. Petersburg Philharmonic shines at Hill Auditorium with Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov (AnnArbor.com, April 3)

Lawrence A. Johnson, St. Petersburg Philharmonic shows brawny strength and refinement (The Classical Review, April 1)

Alan G. Artner, St. Petersburg Orchestra easily scales the peaks (Chicago Tribune, April 1)

Sue Gilmore, Cellist Alisa Weilerstein teams with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in S.F. (Contra Costa Times, March 24)

Mark Swed, St. Petersburg Philharmonic begins U.S. tour with Alisa Weilerstein (Los Angeles Times, March 23)

Tom Jacobs, Alisa Weilerstein with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic (Santa Barbara Independent, March 21)

Donna Perlmutter, Cello virtuoso Alisa Weilerstein is always at the head of her class (Los Angeles Times, March 20)
The best playing was on the Rimsky-Korsakov, something in the overture slot of the classic orchestral program (overture, concerto, symphony) that was not actually a waste of ten minutes. Temirkanov, with his trademarked hands-off conducting style, allowed the Easter liturgical themes to unfold and breathe naturally. The violin section was not always together with itself (splendid violin solos by concertmaster Lev Klychkov, though), but overall the orchestra played with remarkable ensemble unity, especially in the many shifts of meter and syncopation. While the overture popped and sparkled under this rather amped-up kind of playing, in the Brahms one missed some greater exploration of the soft side of the dynamic spectrum, beyond some melting, sweet horn playing in the second movement. The third and fourth movements of the Brahms, especially, had tinges of the "Russian triumphal" sound that not only seemed a little out of place but kept the ensemble from quite locking into place. The piece is itself on the weighty side, both formally and texturally. One thinks of Edouard Hanslick's private review, sent to Brahms after hearing this symphony performed in a two-piano version: "All through I felt I was being beaten by two terribly clever men." Thank goodness that Tchaikovsky was not programmed, or our hearing would have been damaged.

Weilerstein is a remarkably charismatic player, approaching the music with smoldering energy and intellectual commitment: that is at least what is communicated by her enigmatic staring into space and often-flopped hair, but it comes across even when one keeps one's eyes closed and focuses only on the sound. Her tone has a resonant buzz but does not really have a large, searing intensity in the style of someone like, say, Rostropovich, for whom Shostakovich composed his first cello concerto. At times one missed a certain vicious quality in Weilerstein's sound, although sometimes her attempts to reach a gutsy sound compromised the accuracy, but this performance had considerable appeal. In particular, Shostakovich's mastery of orchestration by this point in his career is evident in many odd colors, like the strange opening in the low winds, a sort of hurdy-gurdy wheezing, and at the end of the second movement the graveyard-pale mixture of cello harmonics (impressively clean playing from Weilerstein) and celesta and hushed strings. The horn solos, prominently featured throughout the concerto, were burnished and clear. Weilerstein played the extended Cadenza movement in a tense and somber way, pushing the fast passages to the edge of wild chaos. The orchestra showed more of its delicate side in an encore of the Nimrod movement of Elgar's Enigma Variations.

The next visiting orchestra to be presented by WPAS will be the Philadelphia Orchestra (May 20, 8 pm) in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, featuring Gil Shaham in Walton's violin concerto, with Charles Dutoit at the helm also in pieces by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. Given the very disturbing news that the Philadelphia Orchestra may soon file for bankruptcy, a plan that has been loudly protested by the players, you will want to support the musicians when they come to Washington.

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