The ones to watch in 2011: Classical

12.18.10
Alisa Weilerstein
The Times (UK)

By Richard Morrison

A former prodigy - with a degree in 20th-century Russian history from Columbia University - establishes herself as a mature virtuoso.

She has been playing in public for more than two decades. Some achievement, given that she is only 28. But only in the past season has the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein indelibly imprinted herself on the consciousness of British music lovers. Two remarkable performances achieved that.

In Oxford she played Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Daniel Barenboim. To say that the tension was palpable is like saying that Everest is a bit steep. Barenboim was married to Jacqueline du Pré, the ill-fated English cellist who was the supreme interpreter of the Elgar concerto. Did Weilerstein, a bubbly New Yorker, feel the pressure?

“Only massively!” she laughs. “Working with Barenboim in any context is very intense. And I was totally obsessed with du Pré when I was growing up. I saw every bit of footage of her before I was 10 and listened to her recordings non-stop, then had to force myself to put them away so I wouldn’t copy her.”

Did Barenboim give her any tips? “He gave me several lessons on the Elgar,” she says. “And he talked about Jackie in the most beautiful and touching way.”

Three months later Weilerstein was back in Britain to play Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto. It’s another work hugely associated with a single performer — this time the late Mstislav Rostropovich. “You could say that the Elgar and the Shostakovich are the two concertos with the biggest ghosts,” she says. “In fact, Rostropovich is like the elephant in the room for any cellist tackling Shostakovich.”

Yet Weilerstein managed to offer an interpretation as valid as Rostropovich’s, but entirely her own. “The young American not only chose a radically different path — more soft-edged, less overtly freighted with emotion, less angry — but traversed this epic work with suppleness and authority,” I reported at the time. It was yet more evidence of how well Weilerstein has made the hazardous transition from child prodigy to mature virtuoso.

She was probably destined to be a musician. For 20 years her violinist father was the leader of one of America’s finest string quartets, the Cleveland, and her mother is a distinguished pianist. “Actually, my parents were very laid-back about it,” she recalls. “I was the pushy one. When I was 4 I said ‘Mummy, I want a cello’ so insistently that I got one.”

Did she have one of those hothouse upbringings — 12 hours’ practice a day, no parties and definitely no boys? She laughs. “No. I went to a regular high school and I had a very nice social life!” She also managed to study for a degree in 20th-century Russian history at Columbia University, in case the cello didn’t work out.

How does she keep her enthusiasm for music fresh? “Mainly by playing as much new repertoire as I can. I have just performed an incredible piece by Matthias Pintscher [a present-day German composer] called Reflections on Narcissus. He is also writing a new cello concerto for me. But persuading orchestras to programme anything slightly modern — even Penderecki, Shostakovich or Prokofiev — is like pulling teeth.”