Music Review: CrossCurrents: Composer Lera Auerbach, Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Lera Auerbach's modern compositions kicked off the CrossCurrents festival.
Lera Auerbach's modern compositions kicked off the CrossCurrents festival. (By F. Reinhold)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 4, 2009

Those fearful of contemporary music may think of it as dry, cerebral, atonal and scary. But Lera Auerbach, a Russian-born composer, delivers lots of fire and passion in music that is generally tonal. Indeed, she offers 18th-century forms and a 19th-century sensibility (that of the brilliant virtuoso) expressed in a 21st-century vocabulary.

A composer portrait devoted to Auerbach kicked off the Kennedy Center's CrossCurrents festival of contemporary music on Friday night. (The festival runs through May 10.) It offered a high-powered lineup: the promising mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (who will give a recital at the Austrian Embassy tonight); the powerhouse cellist Alisa Weilerstein (who is performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Kennedy Center tonight); and Auerbach herself, who, as well as being a composer, is a capable pianist and published poet.

If Auerbach's music is scary, it's in having so much passion. The first piece on the program was a setting of Marina Tsvetaeva's poem "The Last Letter," written after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke, with whom she had a passionate though purely epistolatory relationship. The music was almost predictable in its ferocious intensity: perfectly suited to both the author of the poem and the black-maned composer.

Weilerstein is a pretty passionate figure herself, making for a hell-for-leather tone to the evening as a whole. Indeed, in "The Last Letter," she often seemed a more central presence (her cello, standing in for the voice of the dead poet, emitting now ghostly harmonics, now keening interludes) than the clear-voiced but softer-edged Cooke.

The evening certainly carried Weilerstein all over the expressive possibilities of her instrument, with pizzicati and guttural bowings, deliberate coarseness and anguished lyricism. And yet the mood of the music, however expressed, was almost uniformly dark: Its spectrum of hues, you might say, ranged from gray to black.

Still, there's no denying Auerbach's tremendous talent as a composer. The most enjoyable work -- after a cello sonata -- was a cycle of 24 preludes for cello and piano (Auerbach's third prelude cycle). The small form of the prelude -- some true miniatures lasting only a minute or two, some longer small essays -- harnessed and focused the music's wildness and helped underline the contrasts, and the fine craftsmanship, and even the inside jokes (a Scherzando prelude is a dark spoof on the overture to "The Magic Flute") that went into it.

The CrossCurrents festival's third composer spotlight, on Joan Tower, takes place tonight.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company