Review | Alisa Weilerstein’s curious ‘Fragments’ struggles to come together

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Much to the annoyance of my other half, I love wall text. Whenever we go to a museum, I reliably drag behind like an anchor, planted in front of every placard before granting myself permission to “really look.” It’s a bad habit I’m aware of and am working on, and it doesn’t suit the spontaneous consumption of art — nor the consumption of spontaneous art. Gimme interpretation.

I start here because I suspect that this particular critical tic — my appetite for (and reliance upon) aboutness — is part of what came between me and “Fragments,” cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s multiyear recital project, which world-premiered its fourth “chapter” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon in a concert presented by Washington Performing Arts.

“Fragments” is an attempt to intermix 36 movements of Bach’s solo cello suites with 27 newly commissioned works by an age- and globe-spanning selection of contemporary composers. Weilerstein began assembling the project late in 2020, at the height of the pandemic shutdowns, asking a diverse array of composers to create 10 minutes of music arranged in two or three “fragments,” with the understanding that they would be subject to future shuffling into a longer work.

Weilerstein has been rolling out the resultant six chapters — each hour-long block representing one of Bach’s cello suites — since last year. Presented in a shell of gentle theatricality (a set of piled geometric forms, underlit like modernist embers), the concert was performed “without pause and without a program.”

“We want to create a space where you are in a state of listening, and allowing your own free associative process to occur while the music is happening,” director Elkhanah Pulitzer says in a video released with the project.

Thus, audience members were handed just a single sheet detailing which composers we’d hear: Courtney Bryan, Gabriel Kahane, Matthias Pintscher, Missy Mazzoli and Paul Wiancko. But the sequence of the pieces and the identities of their composers were kept sealed behind the vault door of a QR code printed at the bottom. One could easily cheat, or one could simply submit to one’s free associations.

Obediently, I opted for the latter approach, allowing the 18 short movements to introduce themselves as the hour or so proceeded. But my associations weren’t as free as I may have liked.

First things first, Weilerstein is a gripping performer to watch and a masterful interpreter of Bach, displaying an alluringly personal and effortlessly expressive engagement with the suites.

Over the course of “Fragments 4,” we heard (in this order) the “Allemande,” “Bourrée I & II,” “Prelude,” “Courante,” “Sarabande” and “Gigue” — a shuffle in itself. Sometimes her connection felt a bit too close, her back-of-the-hand intimacy with Bach translating to playing that felt too casual. More often, her takes were fierce, energetic and charged with a vitality conspicuously absent from the contemporary connectors.

The problem with “Fragments” is that, as much as it wants to direct listeners to the focus on the present moment, and as valiantly as it tries, the music itself remains stubbornly representative of a much darker moment — i.e., it’s #CovidCore.

Each of the contemporary pieces, anonymously strung like shaky rope bridges between the comparative terra firma of the Bach movements, struggled to cloak the rocky, inhospitable terroir of their respective origins. The peak of the coronavirus crisis yielded an overload of similarly well-intentioned miniatures concerning themes such as “connection” and “isolation”: hours worth of one-minute violin solos, 10-minute operas, musical “fragments” of every imaginable, commissionable form.

And although, decades from now, this surplus store of incomplete works, musical doodles and interrupted thoughts will provide valuable historical context toward excavating the true cultural damage caused by the pandemic, listening to them now feels vaguely like snacking on war rations.

This meant that composers whose works I tend to enjoy — Wiancko, Mazzoli and Bryan, especially — were lost in the mix, possibly responding to Bach (slackened arpeggios appeared and ghosted through the hour), possibly not. Several of the “fragments” relied more heavily on silence than sound, Weilerstein often whittling the music down to harmonic cries for help and Cage-worthy stretches of quiet.

It’s worth mentioning that the theatrical element of “Fragments” was a largely successful reimagining of typical recital dynamics. When the lights came up from complete darkness at the outset, Weilerstein sat nested center stage in an ample royal blue gown. (Not every recital has costume designers; this one had Molly Irelan.) The intended drama was achieved.

Scenic and lighting designer Seth Reiser’s washes of light provided unobtrusive wayfinding, transitioning through colors coded to each unidentified composer. It was both visually pleasing and navigationally helpful, but the effect of the golden amber light that accompanied each return to Bach felt like clouds parting, sudden sunlight, spring returning — a sense of rescue, stability and certainty.

It didn’t seem quite fair to the commissioned composers, whose works largely writhed around in bluish darkness. Lining up my memory with the cheat sheet after the concert, I felt light gratification at having “guessed” a few of the composers correctly. Bookending pieces by Mazzoli were marked by her beckoning sense of melody. And Wiancko’s more directly responsive “Allemande” and “Gigue” revealed their composer’s hand in their timbral adventurousness.

This unpredictable toggle between the known and the unknown sure felt familiar! Are we sure this music isn’t about something? Absolute music — i.e., music with no outside references or meaning — is having a moment right now: This year’s Biennale Musica in Venice selected “Musica Assoluta” as its organizing theme.

But “Fragments,” as hermetically sealed and focused on the now as it would like to be, is every bit a project about the pandemic: the conditions it created, the music it left us with, and the problem of what exactly to do with it. In more ways than one, the pandemic is unfinished business, and it seems as if we’re only beginning to pick up the pieces.

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