Thursday, January 18, 2018
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Review: Florida Orchestra guest conductor brings youthful flair to Brahms, Shostakovich

ST. PETERSBURG — The Florida Orchestra's season of guest conductors continued Friday morning, and the focus was on youth, with Joshua Weilerstein, in his mid-20s, making a strong impression in conducting Brahms and Shostakovich.

There were several busloads of students attending the concert at Mahaffey Theater, and they made up a good portion of the audience of 605, a modest turnout indicating that the orchestra's series of morning masterworks concerts, now in its second season, has not really caught on.

In many ways, the Brahms Double Concerto for violin and cello and orchestra was the perfect piece for young people. Not only is it a rich slice of romantic virtuosity, but the two soloists, violinist Karen Gomyo and cellist Christian Poltera, are both pretty young themselves. With Weilerstein's attentive accompaniment, the duo gave a lovely performance, vividly communicating the chamber music quality of their collaboration, exchanging quick glances throughout, demonstrating the teamwork that goes into fine music making. The Brahmsian flow of the finale was exhilarating.

Weilerstein, a lithe, active figure on the podium, is clearly a conductor with a bright future. Coming from an illustrious classical music family — his sister is star cello soloist Alisa Weilerstein, his parents are eminent performers and teachers — he is already an assistant conductor with the New York Philharmonic. He even managed to inject some life into one of Brahms' most useless works, the Academic Festival Overture, which opened Friday's program.

After intermission, Shostakovich's tormented Fifth Symphony, full of ambiguous complexity and almost 50 minutes long, was probably tougher sledding for kids in the crowd. You might also expect it to be somewhat daunting for Weilerstein because for a decade the orchestra has been playing it and other works by Shostakovich under former music director Stefan Sanderling, who had a personal connection with the Russian composer. His late father, conductor Kurt Sanderling, was a friend and colleague of Shostakovich in the former Soviet Union and East Germany.

Weilerstein handled the occasion with aplomb. He began by giving a cogent talk on the controversy of the symphony — premiered in 1937, it represented the composer's supposed political rehabilitation after an attack on his music by Joseph Stalin, though Shostakovich later said his intentions were to mock the regime — and then conducted the score from memory.

This was a relatively swift Shostakovich Five, and Weilerstein drew a more nuanced, layered sound from the orchestra than he had in the Brahms works. The performance was studded with deft little episodes, such as the acerbic, folk-like solo by concertmaster Jeffrey Multer in the Allegretto and the flute-harp duet by Clay Ellerbroek and Anna Kate Mackle in the Largo. The finale, in the revised post-Stalin interpretation, is meant to come across as grim and forced, but it can be hard to resist such gorgeous music, and the brass and percussion were spectacular.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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