Guest artists shine with ASO

There are concerts with big stars and beloved blockbuster scores. And then there are concerts for the real connoisseurs. Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert featured two young guest artists known best to their large, growing cults, and two big tough mid-century works.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who will turn 31 on Sunday, began playing the cello at age 4 and was playing with major orchestras at 13. A highly virtuosic musician, she is known for her passionate playing. She performed Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1, widely considered one of the two great cello concertos of the 20th Century. Angular but still neo-classical, it reflects the angst of survival in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

The concerto was written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who famously insisted on wild volumes. “Extremes are absolutely needed for Shostakovich,” he said, and the big passages shook the room when, having become a conductor, he took on the work again. Welierstein and the evening’s other guest, French conductor Lionel Bringuier, chose a very different approach, dynamically restrained and devoid of theatrics. Like Rostropovich, Bringuier started with the cello, and the approach here was likely the result of considered collaboration. The restraint in the orchestra had the effect of amplifying Weilerstein’s ability to pack intense emotion into her sounds, the range of timbres she can create, and her flawless intonation. The lack of a big orchestral storm accentuated the anguish. But there was a storm (outside) and a celestial comment: the concerto’s centerpiece is a long cadenza, during which we got a big thunderclap, nicely timed and on pitch.

Weilerstein arrived in a gorgeous turquoise gown. Her head , and her long hair, were in constant motion when she played, and her facial expressions mirrored the deep pain expressed in much of the work. She also managed conspiratorial glances at ASO concertmaster David Coucheron. It’s hard to look glamorous and feminine while playing a cello, but she pulls it off nicely.

The other biggie was Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a fascinating work that mixes classical elements with modernism. Known as a difficult showpiece for the orchestra with star turns for just about everyone, it emerged under Bringuier as a sensuous sonic journey. Bringuier again managed to put his stamp on things, and here he was again a bit subdued, the better to focus on wonderful textures from the players. That is not to say that we didn’t get moments of brassy exuberance or flashy speed. These seemed more intense than ever when contrasted with the gentler approach to the rest of the piece.

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The concert opened with Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a 12-minute scherzo that owes its popularity to its use in the Disney film “Fantasia.” Bringuier gave it a serious treatment, rescuing it from the trappings of Hollywood and the indignity of serving as a Mickey Mouse’s soundtrack. We got a lithe, liquid, somewhat string-heavy reading that seemed about right.

Symphony Hall was appallingly empty, despite a nice sprinkling of kids (school was out). As theater impresario Sol Hurok said: “If the public doesn’t want to come, you can’t stop them.” Still, this was one of the most satisfying concerts of the season, marred only by the record number of cell-phone intrusions.

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