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CityMusic Cleveland initiates series of intergenerational concerts
Donald Rosenberg, The Plain Dealer, May 8, 2011

CityMusic Cleveland has become a popular ensemble throughout Northeast Ohio for a symphony of reasons. The chamber orchestra's programs are alluring in design and expert in execution. The fact that the performances are free could be deemed a bonus.

But CityMusic isn't content to rest on its laurels. This week, it will add yet another intriguing project to its schedule -- intergenerational concerts in the morning for children and adults.

"A lot of people don't work during the daytime," said Eugenia Strauss, the orchestra's executive director. "There are a lot of seniors, a lot of people who work at night, and, unfortunately, Cleveland has a lot of unemployed people. We want to tap into that and create intergenerational audiences."

To do so, CityMusic is presenting a program that makes all sorts of new connections. The concerts mark the local conducting debut of former Clevelander Joshua Weilerstein, one of the hottest emerging conductors on the international circuit.

He'll preside over something old, Rossini's overture to "The Barber of Seville," and something hot off the presses, the world premiere of Margaret Brouwer's "Daniel and Snakeman," a piece with narration modeled after Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."

"Daniel" is part of CityMusic's intergenerational mission embracing works that address social issues. Brouwer's work has messages about race and harmony.

Next year, CityMusic will broach the subject of genocide when it presents the children's opera "Brundibar" by Hans Krasa, a Czech composer who created the work in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt and died there.

In writing the 30-minute "Daniel," Brouwer devised a futurist story about Daniel, who saves the world from the half-snake, half-human Snakeman, a villainous bigot intent upon imprisoning humans who try to get to know one another.

"It's about people who are different and from different cultures getting along," said Brouwer, "and how their lives are enriched by learning music and customs of other cultures."

Like Prokofiev in "Peter," Brouwer -- former head of the composition department at the Cleveland Institute of Music -- uses instruments to represent characters. Daniel's heroic personality is embodied by French horns and trumpets. A clarinet flies high and low to portray Wiggy the Bat, Daniel's sidekick.

Snakeman's instrumental counterpart is the trombone, whose glissandos slide up and down like a snake. It's an instrument that plays what Brouwer terms "a tough-guy type of melody."

Weilerstein, who's finishing a master's degree in conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, received Brouwer's score in March.

"It's just a really fun, heartwarming piece, and the story is very engaging," he said. "I think it will be really effective in performance."

At the tender age of 23, Weilerstein already knows what's effective in concert. Two years ago, after receiving a bachelor's degree in violin performance at the New England Conservatory, he won first prize in the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The competition gave him his first opportunity to conduct a professional orchestra, the Danish Radio Symphony. Weilerstein's triumph thrust him to international attention and put his career on fast-forward.

"It's really surreal," he said by phone from Boston. "The competition was the thing that set it off. I'm still in that mode of shock and surprise about everything that's happening."

Until about five years ago, Weilerstein thought he'd spend his life as a violinist. Inspiration from a living conductor (Ludovic Morlot) and a deceased one (Carlos Kleiber) persuaded him to take conducting lessons and stand in front of musicians.

"When it's going really well, in a very simplistic way, you feel like you're playing the whole score and each instrument in the orchestra," he said. "Even though you're not making any sound, if the collaboration is right and you're working correctly, you feel you're part of something very huge and important."

Perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that Weilerstein is becoming important in the music world. His father, Donald, was longtime first violin in the Cleveland Quartet and taught at the Cleveland institute before joining the faculty at the New England Conservatory. His mother is the admired pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein.

And his sister, Alisa, is among the heralded cellists of our time, with a roster of engagements that includes the Cleveland Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. She has appeared several times in concertos with her brother on the podium.

"It doesn't create any familial conflicts," he said. "I don't feel subservient, but in a concerto I'm at the service of the soloist. It's easier than in a chamber-music environment."

Not that he has much time for chamber music. Coming up are concerts with the Houston Symphony, Frankfurt Radio Orchestra, Finnish Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic and Toronto Symphony.

But first, there's the return to his former hometown to conduct CityMusic. As concertmaster of the Boston orchestra known as the Discovery Ensemble, Weilerstein is familiar with an organization devoted to building audiences for classical music.

"That's pretty vital, considering how arts education is being basically eliminated" in schools, he said. "It's really vital for orchestras that are not necessarily geared toward that but have it as a big part of their mission."