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Critic's Notebook: In two local concerts, Alisa Weilerstein shows why she is the next great cellist

Critic's Notebook: In two local concerts, Alisa Weilerstein shows why she is the next great cellist
Alisa Weilerstein in a recital of Bach's Cello Suites at the Wallis on Nov. 9. (Kevin Parry / The Wallis)

In 2005, a spunky 23-year-old cellist made her debut with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and the verdict here was: “When she matures, look out.”

Back with the LACO eight years later, the proclamation had become: “She’s matured. She’s a star.”

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That was not exactly a surprise. By then, Alisa Weilerstein was already a major soloist and recording artist. She had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2011. She had given so thrilling a performance of Dvorák’s Cello Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic that, while conducting the last movement, Gustavo Dudamel said he heard a loud pop and lost sensation in his body. Keeping up with his adrenaline-charged soloist, he had pulled a neck muscle and had to be taken to the hospital at intermission.

On Wednesday night, Weilerstein played the Dvorák again, this time with the Czech Philharmonic at Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Two nights later, she gave a 3 1/2-hour marathon traversal of the six Bach cello suites.

The Dvorák is the most beloved of all cello concertos. The Bach is cello Everest. These are pieces played and recorded endlessly. Every major cellist, and a horde of middling ones, can be found among well over 100 recordings of the concerto. At least 18 new recordings of the Bach suites have been released this year alone, ranging from presumably hip electronica arrangements to Yo-Yo Ma’s intense, profound late career traversal.

When it comes to these works, it is still too soon to talk about maturity. There is no telling what kind of cellist Weilerstein, who is 36, will be at age 50 or 60. What we can talk about, however, is greatness. Of that, these two concerts left zero doubt.

Quite a bit has changed since her Dvorák with Dudamel in 2010. Weilerstein made a probing, intense recording of this most loved of all Czech concertos three years later in Prague with the Czech Philharmonic, led by its music director, Jirí Belohlávek. He then invited her as soloist for the orchestra’s 2018 U.S. tour celebrating the Czech Republic’s 100th anniversary of independence.

With Belohlávek’s death last year, she instead appeared with Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov, who became the orchestra’s new music director in the fall. Weilerstein played as if in a state of near rapture, every tiny 16th-note bit of the score absorbed. It may have been Bychkov, or playing in an unfamiliar hall, or the significance of the occasion (the actual anniversary was only 10 days earlier) or the mysteries of maturity, but again, much has changed.

She was blanketed by an orchestra insistent on being heard. Wind players, in particular, turned solos into pedantic examples of the true Czech style — namely, lots of tremulous forthright expression. After intermission came a sorry model of unimaginative programming — Tchaikovsky’s syrupy Serenade for Strings and his blowsy “Francesca da Rimini” symphonic fantasy — and fabulous playing, the strings particularly impressive.

But it was Weilerstein’s Bach that was a true model of the meaning of mastery when it comes to what a string instrument is capable. All alone, she created something even richer than all the Czech string players combined.

When it is just Weilerstein and her cello, you can’t tell the two apart. You can see her seated, hugging her instrument, as a cellist must. But the resonances that resulted in the intimate Wallis had the same kind of presence as might someone sitting next to you and singing in your ear. The sound might easily have come from her voice, her lungs and her being.

The suites themselves follow a similar sequence of Baroque-era dances. After an improvisatory-like prelude, the dances are all in two parts, each part repeated. It is up to the performer to find a way to make those repeats not seem superfluous.

Weilerstein’s approach was to make every measure live in the moment, each a new thought that crossed her mind and proved as surprising to her as to us. Often, that meant she would enthusiastically rush into the repeat, the first time having so enthused her that she just had to go back a second time to find out what else there was, what it would be like if something adamant would be just as irresistible if it were frolicsome. The loud could be soft; the slow, fast.

The suites were programmed in pairs, with breaks between. Each pair got longer — 45, then 50, then 65 minutes. Expressively, Bach implies a journey, and Weilerstein set out in jaunty fashion. The joy was in her discovery.

By the Fifth, the most introspective, she was digging as if possessed. By the end of the Sixth, she seemed a different person than the one who began the journey, other than the fact that she never lost her poise. Her command of the cello, of its sound and of Bach, was consummate.

Although several female cellists have recorded these suites, they mainly are the province of men, and there is always something macho about both the physical and the emotional challenges of playing them all in concert. Unlike every other cellist I have witnessed, Weilerstein didn’t look drained at the end. She looked fulfilled.

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Married to Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, who becomes music director of the San Diego Symphony this summer, Weilerstein will be in Southern California as a soloist with her husband and his new orchestra in January. In the meantime, she has an effusively compelling new recording on the Pentatone label leading Haydn’s two cello concertos and a sextet performance of Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night” that shows she has a flair for conducting too.

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