Music Review

BSO and cellist Alisa Weilerstein explore the edges of dreaming

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and guest conductor Francois-Xavier Roth performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and guest conductor Francois-Xavier Roth performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Thursday night.(Robert Torres)

Hypnagogic hallucinations are vivid, bizarre sensory experiences that can arise on the edge of sleep. They can immerse us into into weird worlds, stretching a few moments of real time into what may feel like hours. They may seem surreal, even magical — testaments to the ineffable power of the subconscious.

These phenomena came to mind listening to Matthias Pintscher’s new cello concerto, “un despertar” (“an awakening”), which received its world premiere Thursday night via the Boston Symphony Orchestra, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and guest conductor François-Xavier Roth. Though not a direct adaptation of the Octavio Paz poem from which it takes its title, the concerto encompasses the untethered, hazy feeling of the text. Weilerstein, a profoundly physical player with a dark and intoxicating timbre, was the perfect guide through the piece’s nebulous and unpredictable sonic landscape. Music seems to move through her viscerally.


The concerto began in twilight with the cello line moaning and wandering in its low range, interspersed with patches of the flickering texture of numerous instruments playing very quietly. At a crucial point, Weilerstein took on speed, chopping up the rounded phrases and jumping into the higher register. Hypnotic currents of looser and quieter harmonic colors were repeatedly interrupted by jolts of rapid, agitated noise, like the mind’s sudden tumble from a strange vision back into the waking world. When it ended, with Weilerstein’s cello ascending into silence, it seemed only seconds had passed.

The evening opened with Berlioz’s “Le corsaire” Overture, which began with too much bluster but soon coalesced into a charming, expansive melody. The strings whipped through flamboyant unison passages. Roth conducted with wide but snappy and taut gestures, and as he cued, he jumped up and down with such lightness and ease that it seemed he had springs in his shining shoes.

Beethoven’s Symphony
No. 6, “Pastoral,” took up the concert’s second half. The piece is a dose of symphonic serotonin, pleasant and idyllic without excessive sentimentality. Roth chose to put the violins on opposite sides of stage front all evening, and the wisdom of that decision shone through most of all in this symphony. This seating arrangement set up a well-balanced sound profile, and call and responses between the violin sections, such as the famous lullaby-like theme in the final movement, were bright and broad. Hopefully other conductors will consider deploying the BSO’s strings in this way.


Unfortunately, the vitality that had been present onstage in the first half seemed to have dissipated. Some passages that should have been full and sweeping sounded forced. When the music flowed, however, it did so beautifully. The light-dappled second movement murmured sweetly, punctuated at the end by three principal wind players’ sprightly birdcalls. The brief storm movement summoned lashing sheets of strings and pounding timpani, as Roth sprang into the air again. When the fifth movement’s theme descended, it did so like a rainbow, iridescent and enchanting but unfortunately short-lived. It may not feel like spring yet, but with the aid of this symphony, one could pretend.


At Symphony Hall March 23 (repeats March 25). 888-266-1200,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.