A Fearless Cellist: Hailed as 'the young old master,' soloist and chamber musician Alisa Weilerstein is dazzling audiences, critics, and colleagues alike

Alisa Weilerstein
Strings Magazine

By Louise Lee

As a youngster, cellist Alisa Weilerstein frequently listened to recordings of the late British virtuoso cellist Jacqueline du Pré’s legendary performances of Elgar’s Cello Concerto and other works. But for Weilerstein, even du Pré’s recordings over time would come to represent too much of a good thing. “I forced myself to stop listening,” Weilerstein says. “I love all she did, but I didn’t want to play like she did. I wanted to play like myself. So, I put the recordings away.”

The move proved part of a steady and successful maturation process for Weilerstein, who at age 27 is the recipient of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, and has developed her own voice and musicality that’s variously described by colleagues and reviewers as “gracious and singing,” “intense,” and “fearless.” Much of Weilerstein’s musical identity reflects a keen interest in playing music by living composers and at times performing with them. She’s associated with a range of contemporary composers, including Lera Auerbach, Gabriel Kahane, Joseph Hallman, and Matthias Pintscher, whom she has commissioned to write a concerto, scheduled for completion in 2012.

“Alisa has made a successful transition from unusually promising person to someone who’s present in the world of music,” says educator and Juilliard String Quartet cellist Joel Krosnick, who taught Weilerstein for three years when she was enrolled at the Juilliard School. “She’s a passionate artist and has a tremendous sense of where she wants to go with her music making.”

Alisa is the child of violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, her fellow members in the acclaimed Weilerstein Trio, the trio-in-residence at the New England Conservatory. Alisa, not surprisingly, grew up surrounded by music. As a preschooler, she listened to her mother practice and pecked out Chopin’s F-minor Fantasy on the piano. She also struggled to make sounds emerge from a makeshift cardboard cello, recalls her mother, before attending the Cleveland Institute to study under Richard Weiss.

The teenaged Weilerstein made her Cleveland Orchestra debut in 1995, at age 13, and performed at Carnegie Hall two years later before studying at Juilliard and enrolling at Columbia University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Russian history in 2004. “I’ve always been able to juggle a lot,” Weilerstein says. “I was doing 50 concerts a year in college. The more I have on my plate, the happier I am.”

During the 2009–2010 season, Weilerstein will perform with orchestras in Toronto, Philadelphia, and Israel, and she will play all six Bach Cello Suites in a series of concerts at Columbia. Late in the season, she’ll perform the Elgar in London with the Berlin Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim. And Weilerstein was recently appointed an artist-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute.

The Weilerstein Trio recently released its latest CD, a world premiere recording of Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” arranged for piano trio by Stephen Coxe.

“Alisa is one of the musicians I love to work with most in the world,” says conductor Jeffrey Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. As a friend of the Weilerstein family, Kahane has known the young cellist since her childhood. He conducted the Colorado Symphony and Weilerstein in an early 2009 performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s concerto “Azul.” “She’s always having a great time onstage,” Kahane says. “She’s an actress, in a profound sense. She becomes the character of what she’s playing.”

Now performing more than 100 concerts a year, Weilerstein in conversation becomes most animated when speaking about her work with contemporary composers. As a youngster, she says, “I played a lot of warhorses by dead white males.” Nothing wrong with that, but Weilerstein says she has grown to thrive on the face-to-face interaction that comes with working with a composer. Before performing the New York premiere of “Azul” in the summer of 2007, which brought the cellist considerable acclaim, Weilerstein worked intensively with Golijov on a top-to-bottom revision of the concerto, originally performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony the prior year. Weilerstein recalls that she and Golijov “went back and forth, deleting, adding, and changing” parts of the work, which was inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem “The Heights of Macchu Picchu” and uses orchestra, hyper-accordion, and ethnic percussion to support lengthy cello melodies.

“With ‘Azul,’ I got the final score just two days before the performance,” Weilerstein says. “I was so excited. It was an exhilarating, and
kind of scary, process, but it was very natural. It had evolved in a very unself-conscious way.”

Since that New York performance, Weilerstein has incorporated “Azul” into her concert repertoire.

Working with composers has an added perk: “Each composer has become a friend,” Weilerstein says. Working with Auerbach, she adds, has been “eye-opening and fantastic.” Their relationship initially started out long distance as the composer prepared a version of her 24 Preludes for violoncello and piano for Weilerstein to perform in the summer of 2008 at the Caramoor International Music Festival, with Auerbach at the keyboard.

The two women didn’t meet until just two days before the concert. “From the first rehearsal, it felt like we’d known each other for ages,” Auerbach says. They’re continuing to perform together and have coupled Auerbach’s Preludes with her transcription for cello and piano of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues for solo piano.

Performing new music creates artistic challenges and opportunities that the classical repertoire doesn’t present. “I won’t say it’s more difficult,” Weilerstein says. “The challenges are different. You can ask the composer, ‘Do you want this or that?’ It’s a luxury that we performers love.”

But like most cellists, Weilerstein can’t neglect the classical repertoire and the familiar well-worn concertos. Indeed, the sour economy has led many orchestra managers and music directors to shy away from new music and stick with the classics, which are tried-and-true ticket sellers, a fact Weilerstein discovered when negotiating repertoire for her concerto performances for the upcoming season. “I requested Penderecki,” she says. “I even requested Shostakovich, but they’re even shying away from Shostakovich because of the economy. It doesn’t sell tickets, which is too bad.

“But I’ll ride it out,” she adds. “It’s a little frustrating, but I have many projects I’m excited about. I’m happy with next season. I’ll do Elgar, and ‘Azul’ a couple of times, and then Dvorák, Dvorák, Dvorák, and Dvorák.”

Not that she disagrees completely with the business mind-set of programmers. “The old pieces have to be played and kept alive,” Weilerstein says. “I’ve played the Dvorák hundreds of times—it’s the greatest cello concerto we have. I never tire of it. It awakens every sense intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. I try to make it fresh while staying devoted to what the composer has written. With warhorses, you want to be devoted and yet allow yourself freedoms.”

Over the long term, Weilerstein is aiming for an even split between new music and classical repertoire in her concerts, “but I’m not there yet.” She adds that she likes “a lot of variety in my programs.” In a solo recital, she says, “I’d be hesitant to play an all-Brahms program, or an all new-music program. Either way, that shortchanges audiences.”

So far, Weilerstein doesn’t appear to have shortchanged anyone. “The way she plays is extremely special,” Auerbach says. “She is completely fearless and plays with such a level of intensity, as though it’s a matter of life and death. That’s the way it should be. She’s not afraid to take risks. For me as a composer, it’s marvelous.”

And as for satisfying audiences? At her recent Colorado Symphony performance, audience members demanded an encore, and Weilerstein offered them a Brazilian samba. “I thought the hall was going to collapse in the response,” Kahane says. “The hall sounded like a rock ’n’ roll arena.”

Player Tips: ‘Learn to Love It’

“With music, learn to love it and learn as much about the history of it as possible. Foster an emotional connection to the music. As a child, I didn’t practice in a disciplined way until I was nine. I did maybe half an hour of formal practice and then would go to my room and play with the cello like a toy. I simply loved the cello. . . .

“Play for non-cellists, for violinists, singers, conductors. That’s not a negative thing. I’d rather hear about what someone wants to hear than, ‘Put your finger here or there.’ Others have a distance from the instrument that’s helpful. . . .

“I’m a big believer in scales, which let me think about keys, harmonies. It’s almost a meditative experience. You can experiment with colors and sounds. Never separate technique from music. Practicing purely for technique is not helpful. Why do we need technique? To help us with the music.”

What Alisa Weilerstein Plays

Weilerstein plays an English-made 1790 William Forster cello. “I’ve had it for 11 years, so I know this instrument well,” she says. “Everyone who has heard it thinks it’s a Strad or an Amati. It’s got a huge sound—it’s a real powerhouse. I’m able to get a lot of colors out of it. It’s also a very stable cello, good for travel and climate changes. It’s got a huge, rich, wonderful sound. When I first acquired it, I thought it was too bright. Over time, I’ve gotten a depth out of it.”

Her bow was constructed by French bow maker Emile François Ouchard (1872–1951). “I got it at the same time I got my cello,” she says. “It’s a match made in heaven. It can do anything.” —L.L.