Magnificent Cello Playing Brings Out a Unique Composer’s Voice

United StatesUnited States Auerbach: Lera Auerbach (composer-pianist), Alisa Weilerstein (cello), Lina Tetriani (soprano), presented by San Francisco Performances, Herbst Hall, San Francisco. 14.3.2012 (HS)

Informed by her Russian roots and a fierce intelligence that has resulted in published poetry and prose (in Russian), Lera Auerbach’s distinctive compositional voice is evident in her music. Structurally, harmonically and melodically, her pieces cohere in layers, often beguiling, sometimes challenging, abutting moments of purity with occasional harsh dissonance, even atonality, but always worth hearing more than once. Her music has something to say, both on an emotional and on a purely abstract level. All that was evident in a compelling evening with the phenomenal cellist Alisa Weilerstein and the up-and-coming soprano Lina Tetriani, presented by San Francisco Performances Wednesday to a rapt audience in Herbst Hall.

Born in a remote part of Russia near the Siberian border in 1973, Auerbach left for the West in 1991 to study composition and piano at Julliard, and composition in Hannover, Germany. Her prodigious output includes operas, ballets, symphonic and chamber music. She won applause for her music to the ballet The Liittle Mermaid, recently done by San Francisco Ballet and available on DVD. The three pieces on Wednesday’s program come from earlier stages of her compositional career.

The most recent (2005), Last Letter, sets a poetic text by Maria Tsvetaeva, who carried on a torrid correspondence with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In introducing the piece, Auerbach noted that the poem, “Novogodneye,” highly regarded by Russia scholars, was written by Tsvetaeva shortly after she heard that Rilke, whom she had never met, had died. It pours out the writer’s anger and agony. Auberbach set the text for mezzo soprano and piano, and wove in a line for cello to represent Rilke wordlessly.

The piece begins with the cello alone, oscillating by half-steps in anguish at first before playing out the decidedly Slavic main theme. That half-step oscillation becomes a kind of motto that recurs in the voice and piano. The voices intertwine in striking counterpoint, but even more effective is Auerbach’s solo writing for them. Tetriani invested her music with intensity, rock-solid intonation and focused sound that went right to the heart. Auerbach played her part with acuity, as you might expect from its composer, and remarkable deftness.

The star, however, was Weilerstein. Auerbach calls for unusual effects from the cello, and Weilerstein executed them with breathtaking virtuosity. At times she coaxed otherworldly sounds by bowing lightly at the bridge or trilling like a mosquito on high harmonics. She could also spin long, vivid rhetorical lines in full sound. Although the music has its share of full-throated power, its best moments come when it recedes into a quiet yet sonorous Russian hymn, or when it fades to nothingness at the very end.

In the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Op. 69, written in 2002 for David Finckel and Wu Han, Weilerstein and Auerbach brought out the contrasts in the four-movement work between the icy sounds of the piano and the warmth and lyricism of the cello. In the second movement Adagio, the piano’s soft dissonances in broad chords play against the cello’s yearning lines. After a toccata lively with syncopation, the finale juxtaposes microtonal trills (Auerbach described them in her remarks as “like a claustrophobic vibrato”), builds to a climax and then trails off as both instruments moved into their highest registers, with haunting results.

By herself in the second half, Auerbach played her 1998 Twenty-four Preludes for Piano, Op. 41. Inspired by similar sets by Bach, Chopin and Shostakovich, Auberbach explores several layers of musical expression involved with time. One is the passing of it, expressed by repeated notes emulating chimes, which recur in various guises throughout. Another is the balance of time elapsing, with the longer, more developed preludes occurring early and late in the cycle, and a series of short, tersely stated ones in a series of six at the center. One of them (marked “Misterioso” in B major) simply lays out the overtone series. Most importantly, the music delves into the idea of memory, sometimes as themes recurring in unexpected places, but mostly by giving the impression that each prelude reflects a specific memory, imperfect in detail but pregnant with undeveloped possibilities.

Marked in my memory are the non-stop chiming of the G above middle C in the G major No. 3, the rapid repetition on each note of the nostalgic tune in No. 4 (which emulated a cimbalom or dulcimer), the Gershwin-like jazziness of No. 14 in E-flat minor and the rapid broken chords of No. 16 in B-flat minor. Finally, the highly dissonant first half of No. 24 in D minor melts into a beguiling folk song, and then snatches of gestures from earlier preludes play against pedal tones as the piece finishes with the tinkling of the piano in its highest register against soft low chords.

It’s her own music, of course, but the technique, clarity and refinement she brought to it makes me want to hear what she does with other composers’ pieces. She’s that good.

Harvey Steiman