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The TSO and its guest cellist deliver musical risk-taking at its finest

Cellist Alisa Wellerstein performs Elgar's Cello Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Josh Clavir/TSO

Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Peter Oundjian
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Roy Thomson Hall
Wednesday, September 18, 2013

With the end of the Toronto International Film Festival, the cellphone-addicted agents, the sunglassed bodyguards and all the other film-world hangers-on have moved to their next nesting place, so Roy Thomson Hall was returned to its "normal" audience on Wednesday night. They were there for the opening of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra's 92nd season, and music director Peter Oundjian's 10th, in a concert that teemed with the anguish and power of late 19th-century Romanticism. Not completely unlike the underlying ethos of the films that Hollywood has been making for a century.

Actually, it was a farewell to that Romanticism that lay at the heart of the evening's most successful piece, the Cello Concerto of Edward Elgar. Elgar wrote the piece in 1918 and '19, as the emotional, spiritual and political world he had known all his life lay in tattered, smoky ruins all about him at the end of the so-called "Great War." Starting from the first anguished phrase of the most anguished of all the instruments, the cello (surely why Elgar chose it), his concerto is a troubled, horrified look at a world gone mad, full of resignation and sorrow, only occasionally leavened by piercing shafts of playful memories or powerful themes of confidence.

And as well as being quite unusual in its unbroken emotional intensity, the concerto is also quite original in its organization. Basically, an accompanied cadenza for cello in four movements, the piece has the cellist playing for maybe all but 20 bars of the score – virtually all the time. The focus is always on the soloist, not on the interplay between soloist and orchestra that is the essence of most concertos. This is a lament, a personal lament written for an instrument rather than a human voice, with a discreet chorus of orchestral voices to give it shape.

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Alisa Weilerstein, a young American cellist who was last here in 2007, played the piece to perfection. A very physical as well as passionate player, Weilerstein hovers over her cello and envelops it in a profound embrace, coaxing out of it the most sensitive, lyrical but powerful phrases. The Elgar is made for her. She has a very pre-Raphaelite presence on stage, all ethereal spirit and wild passion, but is supremely musical at the same time.

As with all great artists, Weilerstein took chances with her music-making. She would reduce the sound of her instrument to a silvery whisper, then run her fingers and bow arm with fierce abandon through a succeeding phrase. Again and again, she revealed the meaning of this music. It's not just a matter of "knowing the score"; it's recovering from familiar music the emotional essence that gave rise to it in the first place. Doesn't always happen, even with the greatest artists. It was happening, I thought, in spades on Wednesday night.

And Weilerstein's risk-taking was rubbing off on Oundjian and the TSO, which provided her very sympathetic, gutsy accompaniment, matching Weilerstein pianissimo for pianissimo, double forte for double forte, digging deep into the sad, fearful world of the Elgar Cello Concerto.

I only wish some of that risk-taking had continued into the concert's second half, which featured a performance of Antonin Dvorak's Seventh Symphony. Dvorak wrote the work in the mid-1880s, when the world that Elgar saw disappear was at its height. Inspired by his friend Johannes Brahms's Third Symphony, the Dvorak is also full of foreboding and Romantic mystery, as well as Dvorak's celebrated Czech charm. It should alarm as well as delight. There are dark, dark clouds travelling through this sunny Bohemian sky. Oundjian's Toronto Symphony, player for player, is a well-trained and excellent ensemble, so the symphony was performed with skill from first note to last. However, with tempos a bit on the quick side, I thought Oundjian made it slightly difficult for himself and his players to come to terms with the dark side of Dvorak's particular force in this work. The music-making was good and solid, but there was a lot left on the artistic table when all was said and done.

We want a lot from the Toronto Symphony. They have proven time and again that they are capable of substantial artistic achievement. So, when they don't reach the heights, we feel a bit let down. The Elgar reminded us on Wednesday night of what they can achieve. It's a standard they've taught us to expect.

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