TORONTO — At the age of 40, American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is one of the foremost soloists of her generation. For the past several years, in her own words, “during yet another of what seemed to be endless lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” she has been working up a project called FRAGMENTS. The project “integrates all of Bach’s cello suites with 27 new commissions in original multi-sensory productions, to make six programs, each an hour long for solo cello.”
FRAGMENTS 1 and 2 were given their first performances in late January at Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of the Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival, and the series resumes in March. Weilerstein played Bach’s Suites 1 and 2 on Jan. 28, as well as 22 new pieces by 10 living composers. She played brilliantly throughout the concert, but I was left pondering that question posed so long ago by that great philosopher Alfie: “What’s it all about?”
It is not the first time that the Bach cello suites have been used for multi-media purposes. In 1997, Yo-Yo Ma made a series of films under the title Inspired by Bach in which the music was accompanied by images of public gardens, modern dance, etc. But Weilerstein is after something different. She wants to present the music in a concert setting. However, the movements of the Bach suites will be preceded and followed by short pieces by contemporary composers. In addition, there will be “responsive lighting and scenic architecture” to enhance the musical experience. The goal is to create “a new emotional arc” and provide “a wholly original and immersive audience experience.”
Another feature of the concert is the absence of a program listing music to be played. The audience only knows in advance the names of the composers whose works might be played, but not which pieces nor the order of the pieces. Even the order of the six movements of the Bach suites will not be given in advance. At the Toronto concert, the audience was given a list of the pieces played in the first half at intermission, and at the conclusion of the concert a list of the pieces played in the second half.
With respect to the “responsive lighting,” it added little or nothing to the musical experience. The concert began with a darkened stage. The lights then came up to reveal Weilerstein playing the first piece of the evening — Joan Tower’s Untitled, as it was later revealed — seated on a chair center stage with a music stand in front of her. The lighting did change from time to time, but it seemed to have little to do with the mood or character of the music. For the most part, it was innocuous lighting, except in one piece in the second half featuring a blinding white light that forced many in the audience to shield their eyes. Just annoying. This blinding light accompanied a piece in which Weilerstein was seen to be moving her fingers rapidly all over the fingerboard, but for the most part there was no sound at all. Was she miming or actually playing something? I have no idea.
And the “scenic architecture”? There was no “set” in the usual sense of the term. Instead, we had 10 or 12 square and rectangular boxes resembling audio speaker cabinets positioned around Weilerstein. After intermission, these boxes were carefully rearranged by a group of stagehands. In neither position did the boxes add anything whatsoever to the music or Weilerstein’s performance of it. The boxes themselves were not particularly interesting or attractive, and their positioning didn’t seem to have any artistic merit at all. In short, neither the “responsive lighting” nor the “scenic architecture” showed much thought or creativity, and to give a credit for “set and lighting design” (Seth Reiser) seems a bit much. But then there were also credits to a “director” (Elkhanah Pulitzer), an “artistic producer & advisor” (Hanako Yamaguchi), and, believe it or not, for “costume design” (Carlos J Soto). As far as I could tell, Weilerstein wore a fairly standard long black concert dress for the entire concert.
As promised, the program included Bach’s Suite No. 1 in FRAGMENT 1 and the Suite No. 2 in FRAGMENT 2. For some reason, the movements were played out of order and mixed in with contemporary pieces. For example, FRAGMENT 1 led off with pieces by Tower and Reinaldo Moya and followed with Menuet II from Bach’s Suite No. 1. Then came a new piece by Allison Loggins-Hull followed by Bach’s Allemande, and so on. I don’t know about the rest of the audience, but I couldn’t discern why this sequence was chosen. There was no obvious connection between any of the pieces and the Bach movements that preceded them or followed them. And being handed a list of pieces played after listening to 18 pieces including the Bach movements scattered throughout was not much help at all in identifying what we had heard.
Was the concert successful in creating a new emotional arc, or providing “a wholly original and immersive audience experience”? Perhaps. But I was left with a lot of questions. Why mix Bach in with music by five contemporary composers in the first half and five more in the second half? What were the musical connections between Bach and Chen Yi or Ana Sokolović? Conversely, does it matter? Can we just hear a lot of unrelated pieces one after the other, without knowing who wrote what, and get a meaningful experience out of it? And are we being fair to Bach? Would he have approved playing the movements of his suites in random order and coupled with pieces written 300 years later? And what do the contemporary composers get out of it? After the concert, could anyone in the audience put a name to any of the pieces — except Bach, of course — they had just heard? At the end of the concert, Weilerstein returned to the stage accompanied by three people. Presumably, they were three of the composers whose music we just heard. But which ones? We heard music by 10 different living composers. Which of them came on stage afterwards? None of the 10 is instantly recognizable, at least not to the average concertgoer.
There was probably one contemporary piece whose identity many in the audience would have been able to determine after getting the “cheat sheet” after the concert. That is because it was the last contemporary piece played before the concert concluded with the Gigue from Bach’s Suite No. 2. This was Caroline Shaw’s Microfictions Vol 2, III. And it was notable for being the only piece on the program in which Weilerstein got to sing, too. This was a lullaby-like piece with wordless vocalizing accompanied by pizzicato notes and chords. It was preceded by the Courante from Bach’s Suite No. 2, and once again I could hear no connection between either the Gigue or the Courante and Shaw’s piece. I looked in vain for further elucidation from the lines Shaw attached to the title of her piece: “The late evening held its shape on the edges of the skyline, poised and quivering like a precarious droplet on the back of a ladybug.”
Like the very concept of FRAGMENTS — and by the way, what does this title mean? — this is pretentious nonsense.
By all means, let’s experiment with concert presentation. The concert format can be old hat and boring, and not only to younger listeners. But on the basis of its first outing, FRAGMENTS is seriously flawed and needs to be rethought, reworked, and reconsidered.
From what I saw and heard, a great artist got carried away and was badly advised. But there is no question whatsoever that Weilerstein is a cellist with few equals today. Her technique is beyond what I thought possible on the instrument. Fifty years ago, I had the same reaction after hearing János Starker playing Kodály’s Sonata Op. 8. Weilerstein can be exciting and deeply expressive and absolutely mesmerizing. And she has set a fine example in commissioning so many composers to write new pieces for the cello. Some of the pieces played in FRAGMENTS 1 and 2 I would love to hear again — in a different context.
FRAGMENTS 1 will be presented March 10 in Santa Barbara, March 14 in La Jolla, and April 1 in New York. FRAGMENTS 2 will be presented March 12 in Irvine, CA, and Aug. 9 at Tanglewood.