Cellist Alisa Weilerstein makes UMS debut with Thursday concert

10.01.09
Alisa Weilerstein
AnnArbor.com

By Susan Isaacs Nisbett

This is how it starts: You are sick. You are perhaps 3 or 4 years old. Your grandmother makes you a cello out of cereal boxes to entertain you. She is sorry for you because you have the chicken pox and your parents are away. Soon you have moved on to a real cello. You play your first professional concert at 6. You make your Cleveland Orchestra debut at age 13. The cello becomes your life.

The story, of course, is more complicated than that. But cellist Alisa Weilerstein, 27, who makes her University Musical Society recital debut Thursday, Oct. 8 at Hill Auditorium with pianist Inon Barnatan, really did start her musical life with a Kellogg’s cello. Or maybe it was a Post.

“I still have it, in pieces, in a closet somewhere,” she said in a recent phone call from New York, her home base when she's not on the road. “There’s a photo of me with it when I was around 3.”

Now she plays an instrument of a far different pedigree and keeps a concert schedule that would seem daunting were it not that she already completed a rigorous Russian history degree at Columbia University while also enrolled at Juilliard and playing around 50 concerts a year.

“I did it by not sleeping for four years,” she said.

Both of Weilerstein’s parents, Donald and Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, are musicians — that first professional concert at 6 was an appearance with Mom and Dad as the junior member of their piano trio — but Weilerstein said that they did anything but push her toward the professional musician’s life when she was a child.
 
“They were very reluctant,” she said. “They thought I was too young, and they wanted to be very careful.”

On the other hand, like a kid with math whiz-parents who can help with the homework, Weilerstein says she profited from having professional musicians as parents.

“There was always a ton of music in the house,” she said. “I remember my parents practicing from the time I was out of the cradle. I started playing Haydn trios with them for fun when I was around 4 and a half. The other thing is that both parents would bring colleagues and students to read quartets with me when I was 8 or 9. I’m quite a good sight reader — I had to do it from childhood, and we had such good people coming to the house, you have to step up. It was really great.”

Ann Arbor meets Weilerstein on Thursday, Oct. 8 as a recitalist, with a pianist who made a wonderful impression here a few years back when he appeared at Hill as part of the gaggle of extraordinary pianists playing a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center piano four-hands concert. “He’s one of my favorites out there,” Weilerstein said of Barnatan. “I was looking for pianists for years, and I felt so lucky to finally meet him and we’ve become very close friends.”

Weilerstein’s musical diet contains about 20 percent recitals, she estimated. She said about 70 percent of her concert time goes to concerto dates and 10 percent to chamber music. She also is a celebrity spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 9.

“I like having a balance,” she said. “I tend to get restless if I do any one thing all the time. I like to keep it varied, but I would like to even things out with more chamber music.”

Her program in Ann Arbor brings a work that is relatively new to her and Barnatan, the Stravinsky “Suite Italienne” (which Itzhak Perlman just played here in the violin and piano version), and sonatas by Beethoven (No. 2, in G Minor, Op. 52), Britten (C Major, Op. 65) and Rachmaninoff (G Minor, Op. 19) that take the program across four nationalities and more than 200 years. “”Both of us like to vary our programs,” said Weilerstein, and “we love these pieces and they go extremely well together.”

University of Michigan music faculty members, cellist Anthony Elliott and musicologist Steven Whiting, examine the Beethoven sonata in a program at the U-M Museum of Art from 7-8:30 p.m on Monday. The program, part of the Masterpieces Revealed series, is free and open to the public.