Weilerstein, BSO provide ear-bending experience with Pintscher premiere

March 24, 2017 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Alisa Weilerstein performed the world premiere of Matthias Pintscher's "un despertar" with conductor François-Xavier Roth and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Alisa Weilerstein performed the world premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s “un despertar” with conductor François-Xavier Roth and the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein has long championed the music of Matthias Pintscher. She brought renewed attention to the German composer Thursday night at Symphony Hall by offering the world premiere of his cello concerto, un despertar, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by François-Xavier Roth.

Pintscher is a creator of blazing musical worlds. Many of his works make use of serene textures and vivid colors within traditional musical forms. Writer Andrew Clements has referred to him as a “radical conservative.”

Yet Pintscher’s style draws upon a solid modernism, with some of his pieces recalling the brash, thickly scored sounds of Stockhausen. Other works unfold quietly and glacially in manner one experiences while listening to Morton Feldman or George Crumb.

Un despertar (An Awakening), inspired by a poem by Octavio Paz, has all of those elements. The twenty-three-minute work spans a single movement, and in that time the music rarely registers above a mezzo forte. Colors transform slowly. Whistle tones in the strings slide into growling basses. The large percussion section, for which this piece calls, supplies washes of rustling sound. All coalesce into solitary notes on the solo cello, which waver in space before evaporating into harmonics.

The piece does have a dramatic structure,  however, with agitated statements growing organically out of the sustained soft moments. But the music just as quickly grows quiet again, the parts, in dialogue with the cello, sounding at a haunting distance.

Pintscher achieves that quality by making dexterous use of extended performance techniques without resorting to empty gestures. Bassoon players are called upon to blow air into their instruments without vibrating the reed. String players bow at the bridge and, in other places, snap their strings percussively. The harpist draws her fingers along the stings lengthwise. The pianist stops the instrument’s strings with balls and cups to create brittle sonorities.

Weilerstein also conjured a host of sounds from her instrument. She proved a dexterous soloist, her tone ranging from dark, dusky low notes to shimmering pitches in her upper register. The work’s gnarly double stops, which she handled deftly, resulted in ringing open fifths and grinding dissonances.

Roth led a sensitive reading that made a strong case for Pintscher and his work. The piece resulted in the most ear-bending listening experience in a BSO season that has been rich in new music. Un despertar is an important new work, and one hopes that it will receive many repeated performances.

The second half of the concert was dedicated to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. Roth, conducting without a baton and leading with occasional flailing and leaping gestures, drew playing of energy and excitement.

In Thursday’s performance, the quick movements had a requisite bucolic verve, with the Trio of the Scherzo sounding like a village band. The fourth movement storm scene had power and intensity. Timpani and strings fluently supplied the thunder and lightning.

In the other movements, Roth wove the phrases into a plush blanket of sound. Entrances seemed to flow in circles, owing to the orchestra’s setup, with violins seated antiphonally and cellists in the middle of the ensemble. The conductor took care to shape the lines with gentle rubato, and the melodies flowed as if breath. Wind and string lines in the second movement burbled like the title’s eponymous brook. The birdcalls, played by flute, oboe, and clarinet, sounded pristine. In the finale, the lines swelled into singing phrases.

The opener, Berlioz’s Le Corsaire overture, had just as much sparkle and character. Strings darted athletically, wind figures chattered. The slow section sounded with a warm, hymn-like glow. In the fiery conclusion, the brass section, complete with cornets, provided weight and power.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall. bso.org; 888-266-1200.


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