Pianist Aaron Diehl
Photo: Maria Jarzyna
Conductor Joshua Weilerstein
SA Symphony, J. Weilerstein, A. Diehl; Camerata SA
Doing right by Gershwin
Matthew Zerweck (violin), Viktor Valkov (piano), and Ken Freudigman (cello).
October 5, 2019
It’s been a great week for music.
Camerata San Antonio opened its 17th
season on Sept. 29 with an all-Russian
program, and two extraordinary young
talents appeared with the San Antonio
Symphony on Oct. 4.
Jazz pianist Aaron Diehl played the
bejabbers out of George Gershwin’s
Concerto in F with the symphony in
the Tobin Center. The guest conductor
was Joshua Weilerstein, artistic
director of the Lausanne Chamber
Orchestra in France, and also a
violinist. He comes with a fine
pedigree: His older sister is the
brilliant cellist Alisa Weilerstein, who
gave memorable performances with
this orchestra in 2005 and 2009. Their
parents are the violinist Donald
Weilerstein, a founding member of the
Cleveland Quartet; and the pianist
Vivian Hornik Weilerstein.
Gershwin’s concerto has one foot in
jazz and one in classical music,
especially the late Romanticism of
Rachmaninoff. But it isn’t lightweight
"crossover” music. Gershwin seldom
gets the credit he deserves for his compositional sophistication. In this concerto the urban American boisterousness and sultriness of the jazz tradition is fully of a piece with the long-form structural complexity of the classical tradition. This was the first
performance I’ve heard that honored
both traits equally.
The most obvious distinctive in Mr.
Diehl’s approach to this piece was his
strategic use of improvisation, richly
elaborating some passages without
violating the rhythmic flow. These
episodes were not imitation jazz but
the real thing, and the same can be
said of his phrasing and color sense
when he was playing the notes as
written. The bluesy piano solo that
follows the brash orchestral
introduction was suffused with wistful
languor, and the pianist brought an
apt wildness to the Charleston
rhythms later in the first movement.
He had no shortage of technique or
power. The finale exploded from the
Mr. Diehl was almost upstaged in the
second movement by principal
trumpet John Carroll’s smoky-dive-
bar-at-closing-time solos. And Mr.
Diehl almost upstaged himself with his
encore, Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal
of a Rose,” in a delicate, searching
performance that earned rapt
attention from the audience.
Sometimes, a musician doesn’t just play music – and a listener doesn’t just hear and enjoy – but both dwell deep within it.
Mr. Weilerstein had an impressive evening. He brought cinematic sweep and incisive rhythms to the orchestral side of the Gershwin concerto. His balances in Felix Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” Symphony were luxurious and carefully gauged, every voice sounding clearly, and there was an uncommon cogency to his phrasing. He got a wide dynamic range from the orchestra, down to a lovely pianissimo from the strings. Only complaint: His tempo in the second movement was surely too fast to qualify as “Vivace non troppo,” and the music really wanted more relaxation.
The concert opened with the American composer Caroline Shaw’s 2011 Entr’acte for strings, a substantial and fascinating piece inspired by a passage from a Haydn string quartet. The music resides largely within classical tonal harmony and thematic unity, but extended techniques dissolve the classical into modernist wooziness or near-silent skitterings. The committed, taut performance included strong solos from principal cello Ken Freudigman and concertmaster Eric Gratz.
I don’t know if Mr. Weilerstein is a candidate to succeed Sebastian Lang-Lassing as the orchestra’s music director, but if so, he certainly deserves further consideration.
The first half of Camerata’s program, in the University of the Incarnate Word concert hall, featured string quartets by two composers from off the beaten path. The first-rate musicians were violinist Matthew Zerweck and Anastasia Parker, violist Emily Freudigman, and cellist Ken Freudigman.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg, a Polish Jew who fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 and became a friend of Shostakovich, has been gaining notice in recent years. He is probably best known for his powerful Holocaust opera The Passenger, whose planned 1968 premiere was scuttled by Soviet authorities; performed for the first time in 2006 in a Moscow semi-staging, it has since received several important productions, including its US premiere at Houston Grand Opera. His brief Capriccio, Op. 11, for string quartet, was composed in 1943. This charming, lyrical music bears some superficial resemblance to Shostakovich, but deep down it is neoclassical, almost Haydnesque, but with modern harmonies that recall Richard Strauss.
Anton Arensky was a tragic figure, showing brilliant talent when he was young, but soon trapped by addictions to alcohol and gambling. He died in 1906 at age 45. His String Quartet No. 1 of 1888 reveals a master of harmony, a fertile musical imagination. and – like the Weinberg piece, a debt to Haydn. Of its four movements, the second, marked Andante sostenuto, is especially interesting for a sweetly lyrical but grounded sentimentality, rather like a film by Ozu. Metaphorical sparks flew from Mr. Zerweck’s violin in the fourth movement, Variations on a Russian Theme.
Pianist Viktor Valkov joined Mr. Zerweck and Mr. Freudigman in the concert’s final work, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A Minor. The performance was big and fearless in every way. Individually and as an ensemble, these guys left nothing on the table.