It was love at first listen. The first time cellist Alisa Weilerstein heard Sergei Prokofiev's Sinfonia Concertante — on the radio in her parents’ car when she was 13 years old — she knew she needed to learn and perform it. She made her father buy the sheet music. Now, two decades later, she brings the work to life with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for a weekend of post-Thanksgiving concerts.
“I think this is an incredibly inspired piece,” Weilerstein tells the Dallas Observer. “To me, it’s like a wild night at the museum, like pictures at an exhibition — such color, variety, a wild, almost primitive energy. It’s a fantastic ride. I’m very excited to bring it to Dallas.”
The program is presented in evening concerts Friday and Saturday, Nov. 24-25, and in the afternoon Sunday, Nov. 26.
The cellist’s rise to prominence has been steady. In recent years, Weilerstein won a MacArthur Fellowship, performed at the Obama White House, appeared in a young-adult romance movie and recorded several albums that have topped classical charts.
Weilerstein compares the Sinfonia Concertante to Prokofiev’s beloved ballet, Romeo and Juliet.
She's says not scared of the challenge it poses.
“It forces you to wear many different hats,” she says. “It’s a wonderful challenge to change your approach to the instrument minute to minute.”
The Sinfonia Concertante is a wild, willful piece of music with surprisingly emotional twists and turns. When Prokofiev wrote it in the early 1950s, he had a terminal illness that was never identified, the Soviet government banned several of his works and his estranged wife was laboring in a Siberian prison camp. The music reflects that turbulence and anguish but also the hopefulness of an aging artist who has found new inspiration.
For a soloist, the Sinfonia Concertante is full of pitfalls. It’s very difficult from a technique standpoint, especially since the cellist is almost constantly busy during its 40 minutes. In the classical community, Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante has a reputation as a tough nut to crack. With its rapid shifts in mood and its huge spectrum of emotions, the piece puzzles some listeners — but instantly connects with others.
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“Buckle up," Weilerstein advises. "You’re in for a really wild ride and a really thrilling ride. What some people have told me is that it’s far more romantic than they think it is going to be. There are such moments of raw beauty and simple chaos, which is surrounded by some of the more spiky writing, and I think people are pleasantly surprised.”
The Dallas Symphony Orchestra, led by music director Jaap van Zweden, will pair Prokofiev with the shorter, cheerier romantic-era Third Symphony by Robert Schumann, inspired by a vacation the composer took down the Rhine River with his wife.
The concert's timing means the orchestra and guest star will be practicing through Thanksgiving, but a working holiday doesn’t faze Weilerstein.
“I have friends in Dallas,” she says, "so I’ll eat well.”