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A Seventh for the Ages

New York
Venetian Theater, Caramoor Gardens
08/06/2023 -  
George T. Walker: Lyric for Strings
Dmitri Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 in E‑flat Major, Op. 107
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92

Alisa Weilerstein (Cello)
Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Roderick Cox (Conductor)

A. Weilerstein/R. Cox

When I started learning the cello, I fell in love with the instrument because it seemed like a voice – my voice.
Mstislav Rostropovich

The cello is like a beautiful woman who has not grown older, but younger with time, more slender, more supple, more graceful.
Pablo Casals

Was it my long‑ago dream or a long‑ago fiction? The image of Ludwig van Beethoven striding through the woods outside Bonn, whistling, humming, clamorously singing his latest creation, while scattering flocks of sheep, and herds of cattle in his path.

Whatever the reality, Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the final Caramoor summer concert, brought forth the apocryphal image of the wayfaring composer. Roderick Cox led his Beethoven‑sized Orchestra of St. Luke’s in a Seventh Symphony which exploded and sent percussive shock waves through the Venetian Theater.

Did conductor Cox push the orchestra ahead of the composer’s written commands? Perhaps. The Allegretto of that cryptic second movement could rival the Eroica funeral obsequy. But Mr. Cox eschewed even the notion of the lugubrious. This movement was more like a jaunty march for victorious (if dog‑tired) regiments. Marching straight ahead, with detours on side streets and the gorgeous St. Luke’s woodwinds tootling when necessary.

Mr. Cox sidestepped the various “meanings” of the movement and went straight to the heart, of relatively elated inspiration.

The conductor’s last movement start sometimes hid the grace notes of the opening theme. Yet that was a worthwhile sacrifice. The excitement was both musical and viscerally exhilarating Too often, conductors take this at a galloping pace, more appropriate for a Rossini overture. Mr. Cox didn’t gallop at all: he ran through the exuberance, keeping the orchestra on a firm leash but allowing his tempos to proceed at fiery speeds.

One could take the Seventh Symphony opening and scherzo as equally festive celebrations. But rather than describing them separately, one must declaim them part of a unified, arousing jubilee with no soft landings. In other words, Mr. Cox altered the Allegretto to Allegretto con brio. And the finale Allegro con brio to Allegro feroce! Not in tempo as much as concentration, to make an unfettered ode to joy.

This is not meant as an affront to the two works of the first half. In fact, the opening short word, George T. Walker’s Lyric for Strings was a beautifully structured elegy and lament at one time. Its 1946 composition was a decade later than that classic of another Curtis Institute graduate, Samuel Barber’s Adagio. And while the resemblance was inevitable, Mr. Walker went on from his eight‑decade astonishing life to write more original and dazzling eclectic music. Roderick Cox gave a sensitive and controlled emotional five minutes.

The following Shostakovich First Cello Concerto was performed by an artist with firm connections to Caramoor. I first heard her here nine years ago (though she made her Caramoor debut in 1999). The program was typical for such a imaginative artist. Yes, Bach, but also Benjamin Britten, Osvaldo Golijov and the great Kodály solo sonata.

Yesterday, her choice was hardly radical. But the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto, written for Rostropovich is filled with pitfalls and challenges. Not, though, for Ms. Weilerstein. She took that initial four‑note picayune theme briskly, hiding the obsessive “hidden” meaning of the composer’s name. This was supposed to be sardonic. But Ms. Weilerstein’s initial lightness was transformed into a short monumental picture.

The centerpiece was of course the slow movement modestly described as “Moderato”. Based on a Jewish folk song, it was extended into a lovely lament, followed by a long fierce cadenza. Few cellists can unify this cadenza. Ms. Weilerstein, though, played it with immaculate virtuosity giving inevitable movement from lowest string to highest realm.

The finale was short, exciting, obviously written for a cellist of Rostropovich’s genius but played here by Ms. Weilerstein with both elegance and excitement.

Harry Rolnick



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