I had heard Weilerstein before.
In April 2011, Weilerstein had played Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 with the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic and Yuri Temirkanov in Boston’s Symphony Hall. That concert had been a stop on the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic’s 2011 North American tour, and that afternoon’s performance of the Shostakovich concerto had provided the low point of the concert.
Temirkanov and the orchestra had been magnificent in the Shostakovich, offering the finest orchestral account of the work I ever expect to hear—all the while entirely ignoring the soloist. Weilerstein’s presence had been imposed on the orchestra by IMG, the producer of the tour (IMG is also Weilerstein’s management firm), and Temirkanov clearly had been unimpressed with the soloist he had been handed. That afternoon, Temirkanov did what he always does when he finds an artist to be unsatisfactory: he pointedly disregarded the soloist, and totally overplayed the orchestra’s contribution. In doing so, Temirkanov was insuring that the orchestral part, by itself, became sufficiently interesting to maintain listener attention.
Temirkanov, over the years, has become a wizard at this sort of thing: keeping concertos interesting and fulfilling, no matter how dreadful the soloist. Temirkanov probably picked up this particular skill during his journeyman years in Russia, a period in which he was required to deal with one poor soloist after another, most often in Tchaikovsky concerto literature—and forced to learn how to keep a concerto performance alive and vibrant all by himself (longtime Russian conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky also possesses this very same skill).
Given how little she had contributed to the performance of the Shostakovich concerto, Weilerstein might as well have skipped that 2011 Boston concert. Her absence would have been noticed by few—she was THAT unimpressive—and her small sound was lost in the confines of Symphony Hall (Temirkanov had been determined deliberately to drown her out in tutti passages, but Weilerstein could not be heard even in unaccompanied passages, of which there are many in the work).
Weilerstein did not reproduce her disappearing act in Saint Paul, perhaps because she was no longer paired with a musician who possessed no respect for her and perhaps because Saint Paul’s Ordway Hall is a much smaller space than Boston’s Symphony Hall.
Weilerstein is a capable instrumentalist, but she is not an interesting musician. Her playing is bland; it lacks personality and individuality and character and depth. Everything she plays sounds much the same—and, to my ears, remarkably insincere.
Weilerstein is thirty years old. Her musicianship is that of someone ten years younger, which signifies that Weilerstein is developing far too slowly . . . or has no business embarking upon a solo career. Weilerstein appears to be—and very much acts like—the prototypical American airhead, with very little between the ears.
Whatever the cause of Weilerstein’s dull-paced maturation, it is easy to understand why Temirkanov had had no use for her. If she were Russian, Weilerstein would be outranked by 500 other cellists and be consigned to life membership in some out-of-the-way provincial theater orchestra.
In Saint Paul, Weilerstein played, in order, Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 5, Barber’s Cello Sonata, Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata.
Weilerstein was lost in the Beethoven, which in any case she played in far too Romantic a style. The Barber did not come off, and I had expected that: the piece is thin if not empty, the ideas shopworn; no one can do much of anything with the piece. The Stravinsky, one of four chamber-music offshoots from “Pulcinella”, was fun—but that had everything to do with Stravinsky, and nothing to do with Weilerstein. In the Rachmaninoff, Weilerstein’s sound was all paste and glue, as if her notion of Late Romanticism was to saturate everything in a gooey stream of sound.
Throughout the recital, Weilerstein emoted shamelessly.
Her facial muscles received the workout of a lifetime; it was exhausting—and ultimately demoralizing—to watch Weilerstein go through her prepared facial maneuvers. Her eyebrows, alone, embarked on a Marine Corps-like lifting regimen demanding unprecedented strength and endurance.
Weilerstein threw her head—and mountains of hair—back and forth and side-to-side all night, like some madwoman in a 1930s Warner Brothers prison movie; her ostentatious, ultra-dramatic bow movements, clearly rehearsed, were straight from 19th-Century “She Can’t Pay The Rent” melodrama.
I hadn’t seen such hokey onstage dramatics since . . . the last time I saw Weilerstein.
Happily, the presence of Barnatan kept the evening from being a total waste.
Barnatan is an extraordinary pianist, as eloquent in Beethoven as in Rachmaninoff. He possesses a beautiful touch and beautiful fingerwork. He drew a sound from his instrument that had clarity and warmth and color. Barnatan brought intellectual vigor to the Beethoven, rhythmic life to the Stravinsky, and power and mood to the Rachmaninoff.
Barnatan is the finest pianist I’ve heard in quite some time. Barnatan should have a solo career . . . and not have to waste his time traipsing around, traveling with and accompanying a creation of the IMG marketing department . . . who is perilously close to camp.
Update Of January 15, 2013, at 5:22 p.m. C.S.T.