World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein, a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and alumna of our Evnin Rising Stars mentoring program, returns to Caramoor for Dvorak’s Cello Concerto — called one of the greatest of all cello concertos — with our resident Orchestra of St Luke’s conducted by former Caramoor Artistic Director Peter Oundjian. The 2019 season opener also features Stravinsky’s breathtaking Firebird and a curtain raiser by Canadian composer Gary Kulesha.
“With her knack for inhabiting a work, she always seems to invest whatever she plays with freshness and directness of expression.” — The New York Times
Orchestra of St. Luke’s
Peter Oundjian, conductor
Alisa Weilerstein, cello
Gary KuleshaTorque Dvořák Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 StravinskyThe Firebird Suite (1919 version)
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Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL) grew from a group of virtuoso musicians performing chamber music concerts at Greenwich Village’s Church of St. Luke in the Fields in 1974. Now in its 44th season, the Orchestra performs diverse musical genres at New York’s major concert venues, and has collaborated with artists ranging from Renée Fleming and Joshua Bell to Bono and Metallica. In 2018 internationally celebrated expert in 18th-century music Bernard Labadie became OSL’s Principal Conductor, continuing the Orchestra’s long tradition of working with proponents of historical performance practice.
In 2019 OSL launches two major initiatives: the inaugural Bach Festival in New York City and the opening of the DeGaetano Composition Institute. The three-week Bach Festival at Carnegie Hall, Manhattan School of Music’s Neidorff-Karpati hall, and at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music will feature 15 performances, including orchestral concerts conducted by Bernard Labadie, keyboard recitals, and Paul Taylor Dance Company performing its complete set of works choreographed to Bach scores.
OSL’s signature programming includes a subscription series presented by Carnegie Hall, now in its 32nd season; an annual summer residency at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts; and a chamber music series featuring appearances at The Morgan Library & Museum, Brooklyn Museum, and Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center. The Orchestra has participated in 118 recordings, four of which have won Grammy Awards, has commissioned more than 50 new works, and has given more than 175 world, U.S., and New York City premieres.
Nearly half of OSL’s performances are presented free of charge through its Education & Community program, which reaches over 11,000 New York City public school students each year with school-time concerts. Youth Orchestra of St. Luke’s (YOSL) provides free instrumental coaching, while the Chamber Music Mentorship Program provides professional development opportunities and workshops for pre-professional musicians.
OSL built and operates The DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City’s only rehearsal, recording, education, and performance space expressly dedicated to classical music. The DiMenna Center serves more than 500 ensembles and more than 30,000 musicians each year.
Peter Oundjian, conductor
A dynamic presence in the conducting world, Peter Oundjian is renowned for his probing musicality, collaborative spirit, and engaging personality.
The 2018-19 season includes debuts with the Indianapolis and New Zealand Symphony Orchestras, and return engagements with the St. Louis, Baltimore, Atlanta, Utah, Colorado, and New World Symphonies as well as the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. He completes his second season as Artistic Advisor of the Colorado Music Festival.
2017-18 marked Oundjian’s fourteenth and final season as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO). His appointment in 2004 reinvigorated the orchestra with recordings, tours, and acclaimed innovative programming, as well as extensive audience growth, significantly strengthening the ensemble’s presence in the world. In 2014, he led the TSO on a tour of Europe, which included a sold-out performance at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw and the first performance of a North American orchestra at Reykjavík’s Harpa Hall. In the 16-17 season, Oundjian led the TSO on a major tour of Israel and Europe.
After serving as Caramoor’s Artistic Director from 1997 to 2007, Peter Oundjian went on to serve as the Music Director of and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
From 2012 to 2018, Oundjian was Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO). Under his baton, the orchestra toured China, the USA, and across Europe. Together they recorded extensively for Sony and Chandos, and presented Britten’s monumental War Requiem at the 2018 BBC Proms.
Few conductors bring such musicianship and engagement to the world’s great podiums—from Berlin, Amsterdam, and Tel Aviv, to New York, Chicago, and Sydney. He has also appeared at some of the great annual gatherings of music and music-lovers: from the BBC Proms and the Prague Spring Festival, to the Edinburgh Festival and The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Mozart Festival, where he was Artistic Director from 2003 to 2005.
Oundjian was Principal Guest Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2010 and Artistic Director of the Caramoor International Music Festival in New York from 1997 to 2007. Since 1981, he has been a visiting professor at the Yale School of Music, and earned the university’s Sanford Medal for distinguished service to music in 2013.
“A young cellist whose emotionally resonant performances of both traditional and contemporary music have earned her international recognition … Weilerstein is a consummate performer, combining technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” So stated the MacArthur Foundation when awarding Alisa Weilerstein a 2011 MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, prompting The New York Times to respond: “Any fellowship that recognizes the vibrancy of an idealistic musician like Ms. Weilerstein … deserves a salute from everyone in classical music.” In performances marked by intensity, sensitivity, and a wholehearted immersion in each of the works she interprets, the American cellist has long proven herself to be in possession of a distinctive musical voice.
In the 2018-19 season, Weilerstein released Transfigured Night on the Pentatone label, joined by Norway’s Trondheim Soloists for three masterworks of the First and Second Viennese Schools: Haydn’s First and Second Cello Concertos and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, from which the album takes its title. Two Scandinavian performances of the album repertoire with the same ensemble open the season. In the spring, she returns to Verklärte Nacht, this time in a trio version, when she tours Europe and the U.S. with pianist and frequent collaborator Inon Barnatan, violinist Sergey Khachatryan, and percussionist Colin Currie. Between these bookends, she gives performances of Shostakovich’s Second Cello Concerto with five different orchestras (the Gothenburg Philharmonic, Orquesta Nacional de España, Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne, Valencia Orchestra, and Toronto Symphony), and tours the U.S. playing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic led by Semyon Bychkov. She also performs the Schumann Concerto with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in Belgium and the Netherlands, and gives accounts of Saint-Saëns’s First Cello Concerto, Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, and Bloch’s Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque in cities from San Diego to Vienna. Finally, she gives two performances, with the composer leading both Copenhagen’s DR SymfoniOrkestret and the Cincinnati Symphony, of Matthias Pintscher’s new cello concerto Un despertar (An Awakening), written for her and premiered last season. In the midst of her orchestral engagements are five solo performances of Bach’s complete cello suites, in Beverly Hills, Boston’s Celebrity Series, the Saint-Denis Festival in Paris, the Elbphilharmonie as part of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival and for Cal Performances in Berkeley. After years of playing the pieces individually, this season marks only the third in which she has ventured to perform them all.
An Evnin Rising Star alumna, cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, BBC Music’s Recording of the Year in 2013, and has performed throughout the world.
Weilerstein’s growing and celebrated discography includes a recording of the Elgar and Elliott Carter cello concertos with Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin that was named “Recording of the Year 2013” by BBC Music; the magazine also featured the cellist on the cover of its May 2014 issue. Her next release, on which — as in concerts this season — she played Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Czech Philharmonic, topped the U.S. classical chart. Her third album, a compilation of unaccompanied 20th-century cello music titled Solo, was pronounced an “uncompromising and pertinent portrait of the cello repertoire of our time” (ResMusica, France). Solo‘s centerpiece is the Kodály sonata, a signature work that Weilerstein revisits on the soundtrack of If I Stay, a 2014 feature film starring Chloë Grace Moretz in which the cellist makes a cameo appearance as herself. In 2015 she released a recording of sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, marking her duo album debut with Inon Barnatan, which earned praise from Voix des Arts as “a ravishing recording of fantastic music.” And in 2016 she released a recording of Shostakovich’s two cello concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony under Pablo Heras-Casado, hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “powerful and even mesmerizing.”
Weilerstein has appeared with all the foremost orchestras of the United States and Europe, collaborating with conductors including Marin Alsop, Jirí Belohlávek, Thomas Dausgaard, Sir Andrew Davis, Gustavo Dudamel, Sir Mark Elder, Giancarlo Guerrero, Bernard Haitink, Marek Janowski, Paavo Järvi, Lorin Maazel, Cristian Macelaru, Zubin Mehta, Ludovic Morlot, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Peter Oundjian, Donald Runnicles, Yuri Temirkanov, Michael Tilson Thomas, Osmo Vänskä, Simone Young, and David Zinman. Her major career milestones include an emotionally tumultuous account of Elgar’s concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim in Oxford, England, for the orchestra’s 2010 European Concert, which was televised live to an audience of millions worldwide and subsequently released on DVD by EuroArts. She and Barenboim reunited in 2012-13 to play Elliott Carter’s concerto on a German tour with the Berlin Staatskapelle. In 2009, she was one of four artists invited by Michelle Obama to participate in a widely celebrated and high profile classical music event at the White House, featuring student workshops hosted by the First Lady, and performances in front of an audience that included President Obama and the First Family. A month later, Weilerstein toured Venezuela as soloist with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra under Gustavo Dudamel. She has since made numerous return visits to teach and perform with the orchestra as part of its famed El Sistema music education program.
Committed to expanding the cello repertoire, Weilerstein is an ardent champion of new music. She recently played the world premiere of Pascal Dusapin’s Outscape, giving it “the kind of debut most composers can only dream of achieving” (Chicago Tribune) with the co-commissioning Chicago Symphony, before European performances with the Stuttgart and Paris Opera Orchestras. The following season she premiered Matthias Pintscher’s cello concerto Un despertar with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which co-commissioned the piece for her, followed by a reprise with the Danish Radio Symphony. She gave the New York premiere of Pintscher’s Reflections on Narcissus under the composer’s own direction during the New York Philharmonic’s inaugural 2014 Biennial, and subsequently the two also performed the work at the BBC Proms. She has worked extensively with Osvaldo Golijov, who rewrote Azul for cello and orchestra (originally premiered by Yo-Yo Ma) for her New York premiere performance at the opening of the 2007 Mostly Mozart Festival. Weilerstein has since played the work with orchestras around the world, besides frequently programming the Argentinean composer’s Omaramor for solo cello. At the 2008 Caramoor festival, she gave the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes for Violoncello and Piano with the composer at the keyboard, and the two have subsequently reprised the work at the Schleswig-Holstein Festival, the Kennedy Center, and for San Francisco Performances. Joseph Hallman, a 2014 Grammy Award nominee, has also written multiple works for Weilerstein, including a cello concerto that she premiered with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in 2008, and a trio that she recently premiered on tour with Inon Barnatan and clarinetist Anthony McGill.
Born in 1982, Weilerstein discovered her love for the cello at just two and a half, when her grandmother assembled a makeshift set of instruments from cereal boxes to entertain her while she was ill with chicken pox. Although immediately drawn to the Rice Krispies box cello, Weilerstein soon grew frustrated that it didn’t produce any sound. After persuading her parents to buy her a real cello at the age of four, she developed her natural affinity for the instrument and gave her first public performance six months later. At 13, in October 1995, she played Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo” Variations for her Cleveland Orchestra debut, and in March 1997 she made her first Carnegie Hall appearance with the New York Youth Symphony. A graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, where she studied with Richard Weiss, the cellist also holds a degree in history from Columbia University, from which she graduated in May 2004. In November 2008, Weilerstein, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was nine, became a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
About the Music.
Program at a Glance
Tonight’s concert begins and ends with a bang: Torque, a short, high-octane curtain-raiser by contemporary Canadian composer Gary Kulesha, anticipates the pounding ostinato rhythms and kaleidoscopic textures that characterize Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 ballet The Firebird. The first of three works written for the celebrated Ballets Russes, it made the Russian composer a household name, and the popularity of the music was enhanced by the three concert suites that Stravinsky extracted from the score. A riot of colors both visually and aurally — a French critic called The Firebird a “danced symphony” — the original production combined music, dance, drama, sets, and costumes into an integrated Gesamtkunstwerk that was at once enchanting and viscerally exciting.
Antonín Dvořák rode to fame in the 1870s on the strength of his popular Slavonic Dances, Gypsy Melodies, and other works steeped in Czech folk music and lore. The Cello Concerto in B Minor is cut from a different cloth. Dvořák completed the score in 1895, on the heels of a series of American-themed works he had written during his short stint as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York. Despite the success of his earlier concertos for piano and violin, the composer initially doubted that the cello could hold its own in the company of a large orchestra. In the end, he set his reservations aside and produced a masterpiece — “a great and skillful work,” in Brahms’s words — that has occupied a place of honor in the cello repertoire ever since.
About the Composer
Canadian composer Gary Kulesha launched his career in the 1970s, a time when the sheen was starting to come off the various strains of post-World War II modernism. Like many of his contemporaries, he developed an abiding respect for tradition, declaring that he values “the same things Beethoven and Mozart did — clarity of form, dynamic harmony, counterpoint, melody (more or less), and a general commitment to the fullness of human experience.” At the same time, Kulesha absorbed the lessons of serialism, postmodernism, New Age music, and “almost every other strand of musical development in the last 70 years.” His goal, he says, is “to take these thousands of strands and make a coherent statement from them.”
Kulesha’s vast and varied catalogue ranges from small-scale electro-acoustic works to symphonies, and from full-length operas to Torque, a four-minute-long burst of orchestral fireworks written for the Toronto Symphony, of which he has served as composer-advisor since 1995. A double trombone concerto to be premiered next month in Muncie, Indiana, is the latest addition to Kulesha’s lifelong project of “integrating traditional experience into a contemporary framework.”
In the Composer’s Words
Kulesha writes: “Torque was commissioned by Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for a tour in September of 2009. Intended as a concert opener, it is a short, energetic work cast as a perpetuum mobile. The brisk tempo is established immediately, and never flags. Indeed, the music is always in motion, even in quieter passages. The title refers to a general concept in physics — simply put, ‘torque’ is a rotational or twisting force. It is most commonly used in descriptions of an automobile’s performance abilities. Although the work is not intended to be descriptive, I must admit that the image of rapidly rotating wheels (or tires) was in my mind throughout the writing of the work. This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that I was shopping for a new car during the creation of this composition. And it may or may not be related to the fact that I acquired a very fast car halfway through the writing process.”
1841 – 1904
Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
About the Composer
A comparatively late bloomer, Dvořák was in his early thirties when he first made his mark in his native Bohemia. Until then, the composer’s reputation had hardly penetrated beyond the city limits of Prague, where he earned a modest living as a piano teacher and church organist. A few of his songs and chamber works had been performed locally, and his Slavic-flavored comic opera King and Charcoal Burner had been well received at the city’s Czech opera house. But Dvořák’s career finally took off when the imperial Austrian government awarded him a prestigious stipend in 1875. In addition to providing a measure of financial security, the prize brought him to the attention of Johannes Brahms, a member of the award jury, who warmly recommended Dvořák to his own publisher in Berlin. Brahms’s endorsement worked like magic: with his works issued under the respected Simrock imprint, Dvořák became an international celebrity virtually overnight. Invitations to perform and commissions for new works began streaming in from all over Europe. The period during and after his residency in the United States, from 1892 to 1895, was especially happy and productive.
About the Work
As director of the newly founded National Conservatory of Music, Dvořák devoted much of his first year in New York to composing his “New World” Symphony and advocating for the development of an indigenously American classical music. “The Americans expect great things of me,” he wrote to a friend back home. “I am to show them the way into the Promised Land, the realm of a new, independent art, in short a national style of music!” The popular success of his symphony and its progeny, the “American” String Quartet and the “American” String Quintet, stimulated the composer’s creative juices. A concertante work for cello and orchestra, long in the back of his mind, now moved to the front. Although Dvořák had written a cello concerto in the 1860s, he seems to have had second thoughts about the instrument’s soloistic capabilities and never got around to orchestrating it. Those misgivings had largely disappeared by the time he started work on the B-Minor Concerto in November 1894. Three months later the first draft was complete, and Dvořák revised the score shortly after returning to Bohemia in April 1895. The concerto’s well-received London premiere the following spring, with Dvořák on the podium, presaged its recognition as a touchstone of the cello repertoire.
A Deeper Listen
Whatever doubts he may have had about the cello’s suitability as a solo instrument, Dvořák had long treated it with special sensitivity in his chamber music. In fact, much of the B-Minor Concerto is distinguished by its chamber-like delicacy, transparency, and ensemble sensibility. Midway through the opening Allegro, for instance, an obbligato flute soars above the cello in a plangent duet, the first of several such episodes embedded in the plushly textured score.
Another strategy Dvořák uses to prevent the orchestra from drowning the soloist is to privilege instruments with similarly burnished, baritonal timbres: thus, before the cello makes its dramatic first entrance, the principal themes have already been introduced by the clarinets, bassoons, and horn. The central Adagio, in G Major, features two of Dvořák’s most incandescent melodies, the second a strenuously lyrical theme borrowed from one of his own songs as a tribute to an old flame (who happened to be his wife’s sister). The rousing, rondo-form Finale is by turns swaggering and swooning. In the composer’s words, the concerto “closes gradually in a diminuendo like a sigh — with reminiscences from the first and second movements — the solo dies down to pp and then swells again, and the last bars are taken up by the orchestra and it finishes in stormy mood.”
1882 – 1971
The Firebird Suite (1919 Version)
About the Composer
Stravinsky’s long and storied career took him from the drawing rooms of czarist St. Petersburg to the tinsel-town sound studios of Los Angeles. It was as a Russian nationalist that he rocketed to fame on the eve of World War I with a trio of colorful, folkloric ballets written for Serge Diaghilev’s celebrated Ballets Russes: The Firebird (L’Oiseau de feu), Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps). The latter’s legendary premiere, which took place in Paris in 1913, sealed the composer’s reputation as one of modernism’s enfants terribles: the incendiary combination of Stravinsky’s primitivistic music and Vaslav Nijinsky’s defiantly antiballetic choreography nearly incited a riot at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.
The Parisian Stravinsky of the 1920s and 1930s cut a more cosmopolitan figure, characterized by such coolly neoclassical masterpieces as the ballet Apollo, the Violin Concerto in D, and the hybrid opera-oratorio Oedipus rex. After emigrating to the United States in 1939, he reinvented himself yet again in works like the opera The Rake’s Progress, the jazz-tinged Ebony Concerto, and the spikily serial Movements for piano and orchestra. This eclectic, multifaceted output was symptomatic of a kind of creative larceny — Stravinsky once described himself as a kleptomaniac — and marked him as a postmodernist ahead of his time.
About the Work
In contrast to The Rite of Spring, The Firebird elicited unanimous praise from critics and public alike. Stravinsky previewed the score in St. Petersberg for a visiting Frenchman, who painted a vivid picture of the composer at the piano, “young, slim and uncommunicative, with vague meditative eyes, and lips set firm in an energetic-looking face.” As Stravinsky began to play, however, “the modest and dimly lit dwelling glowed with a dazzling radiance. By the end of the first scene I was conquered; by the last, I was lost in admiration.” Robert Brussel’s reaction was echoed in the responses to the ballet’s premiere at the Paris Opéra in 1910, with one reviewer hailing the production as “the most exquisite marvel of equilibrium that we have ever imagined between sounds, movements, and forms.”
The story, based on Russian folk tales, revolves around the magical Firebird, the evil King Kashchei, and a heroic prince. (Stravinsky, as a newcomer on Diaghilev’s creative team, had negligible input into the libretto, which had already been hashed out by a committee by the time he came on board.) Although Stravinsky’s unconventional sonorities and rhythms initially flummoxed the musicians and dancers, the first performance came off without a hitch and catapulted the 28-year-old expatriate into the company of France’s cultural elite.
A Deeper Listen
Always eager to capitalize on his successes, Stravinsky put together no fewer than three concert suites from The Firebird between 1910 and 1945. The 1919 version that we’ll hear tonight includes five of the original 19 numbers, beginning with the surreal, ominously subdued Introduction, set in Kashchei’s enchanted garden, and ending with the majestic wedding hymn that brings the ballet to a festive conclusion. In between come a series of varied dances: the first flighty (for the Firebird), the second demure (for the thirteen princesses under Kashchei’s spell), the third “infernal” (for the evil king himself). The latter — a tour de force of syncopated rhythms and glittering harmonies — is seamlessly paired with the haunting “Berceuse,” in which the Firebird lulls Kaschei to sleep.
Although Stravinsky pared down his opulent orchestration, the suite preserves such unforgettable sonic images as the primordial slithering of the lower strings in the Introduction, the xylophone’s hollow pattering in Kashchei’s “Infernal Dance,” and the plangent wailing of the bassoon in the “Berceuse.” The fact that Stravinsky habitually composed at the piano helps explain the music’s crystalline and often savagely percussive brilliance.