Appearing with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra eight years ago, 23-year-old Alisa Weilerstein was a playfully kittenish cello soloist in Tchaikovsky's "Rococo" Variations. I wrote then that when she matures, look out.
I can take no credit for divination. The crowd at UCLA's Royce Hall was clearly captivated. Weilerstein had been on LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane's radar three years before she made her debut with the orchestra. She was already being followed with intense interest by the music business.
She's matured; she's now a star; and Sunday night Weilerstein was back with Kahane to close out LACO's season with Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto. There was no reason not to believe she would blast the roof off Royce, but this no longer seemed news. She had played the bejesus out of the concerto with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall two years ago. She's appeared recently with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pacific Symphony.
LACO's strange program, focused around youth, seemed to promise greater novelties. It began with a wondrous score by a rising star, Anna Clyne, that Esa-Pekka Salonen premiered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. The evening also featured the weird world premiere of a bassoon concerto by a young French film composer, Hugo Gonzalez-Pioli, written to accompany a 1927 experimental French silent film, "The Love of Zero."
So much for my powers of prescience. Sunday night was all about Alisa in Shostakovichland.
What's becoming increasingly evident is that Weilerstein is not a cellist in the way that great cellists typically are. Yo-Yo Ma, for instance, appears to possess the kind of mastery that allows him to be as ardently rhapsodic as he chooses. The cello is his alter ego and, in his striving for perfection, his superego.
Weilerstein's cello is her id. She doesn't give the impression that making music involves will at all. She and the cello seem simply to be one and the same. She's also explosively passionate, so, yeah, look out.
When Weilerstein took on the guys from St. Petersburg in the Shostakovich concerto, the orchestra challenged her, soulful phrase for soulful phrase. She blew them away. With Kahane, she had generous support and thanks to smaller LACO, a more chamber-like situation. Royce is also more intimate than Disney. Still, I'm not so sure she knew where she was — or cared. She played in her state, not ours.
She hammered the opening motto as if it were a knock on the door that would change your life. She went inside the melancholy slow movement, lingering in its deepest, darkest, gloomiest corners. She played the cadenza as if facing down danger. She played the Finale as if she were Mick Jagger in his day.
Sunday was a very good day for women in their early 30s. Clyne's "In Her Arms," which takes inspiration from the writings of Zen Buddhist sage Thich Nhat Hanh, is a moving meditation on death from the point of view of the sweetness of nature and of string sounds. Here, it was also a welcome warm-up. The L.A. Chamber Orchestra has co-commissioned a new work from Clyne for next season with the Chicago Symphony, where she is a composer-in-residence.
Gonzalez-Pioli — who was born in 1989 and is, despite his name, from the south of France — is a recent USC grad with aspirations to write film music. We desperately need quirky film composers and his Bassoon Concerto, written for the LACO principal Kenneth Munday, would seem to promise that we've now got a new one.
Robert Florey's "The Love of Zero" is a surrealist comedy that turns creepy, a love story about a trombonist meant to look like Salvador Dalí. It has the special effects, such as revolving multiple eyes that the early surrealist French filmmakers liked, but that only makes the short seem derivative.
Gonzalez-Pioli's score, played along with the film, proved conventionally derivative as well, somewhat in the Les Six style of the late '20s. What was quirky and delightfully effective was having a bassoon stand in for a trombone. What was impressive was Munday's fluent playing.
And, then, having nothing to do with anything else, Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture crashed the program after intermission. The performance was stunningly strong. Kahane knew Weilerstein's Shostakovich was coming, and he paved the way.