At the Walt Disney Concert Hall, cellist Alisa Weilerstein displays her genius in FRAGMENTS 2, an interpretive back-and-forth between Bach and modern composers.
By John Lavitt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11-20-2023
As part of the Colburn Celebrity Recital series, the LA Phil presented cellist Alisa Weilerstein performing FRAGMENTS 2, the second part of a multiyear performance series that mixes the new music of modern composers with the classic Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. As directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer, although the performance demonstrated the virtuosity and brilliance of Alisa Weilerstein, it also felt very insular, as if the audience was not present. Despite her emotionalism when playing, the cellist does not connect with her audience, and it feels like her connection to the music comes first to the point of exclusion.
In the LA Phil description of the cellist, the following is written: “Alisa Weilerstein is one of the foremost cellists of our time. Known for her consummate artistry, emotional investment, and rare interpretive depth, she was recognized with a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ Fellowship in 2011. Today, her career is truly global in scope, taking her to the most prestigious international venues for solo recitals, chamber concerts, and concerto collaborations with all the preeminent conductors and orchestras worldwide.”
Indeed, given her record of accomplishment, the musical refinement and capabilities of Alisa Weilerstein are undeniable. However, the nature of FRAGMENTS 2 reflects its origins. Conceived during the isolation of the pandemic quarantines, all of the new music in the program has been commissioned by Alisa Weilerstein and FRAGMENTS. With the pieces switching back and forth between Bach and the modern composers, it feels like an investigation and, sometimes, an interrogation of the classical composer. Ultimately, Alisa Weilerstein seems more engaged in this back-and-forth than with the live audience.
During the performance, there were opportunities to explore a storytelling aspect of the immersive audience experience. However, such doors are not opened. Rather, if you want to have the multisensory experience of the artist, it will be on her terms. Although the responsive lighting signaled a shift from one composer to the next, it did not tell a story. Moreover, the geometric architecture on stage was abstract in nature. Rather than the intensity of a Kandinsky painting, it felt like the compositional distance of a Mondrian.
In her artist’s statement, Alisa Weilerstein writes, “At its core, FRAGMENTS is about deep connection: links between disparate compositional voices, between concert music and theater, and most importantly, between audience and performer.” What is frustrating is that the performance did not hit two of these marks. The link between concert music and theatre was hurt by the limited use of storytelling techniques in the musical presentation and construction.
For example, towards the end, Alisa Weilerstein put down her bow, plucking the cello while vocalizing deep, beautiful harmonies that sounded like a funeral dirge. It was a rare moment during the performance of connection with her audience. Indeed, it felt like this piece should have been used as a frame for the entire piece. It could have allowed her to tell a story through the music of overcoming the isolation of the pandemic by connecting with her art. Although she remains one of the finest cellists of her generation, FRAGMENTS 2 does not provide a connection between audience and performer that rivals her vaulted reputation.