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A Bolt from the Blue

Alisa Weilerstein
Symphony Now

By Robert Sandla

You can’t apply for one. You can’t gently hint that you deserve one. You can’t tell all your friends to vote for you. Instead, every year an anonymous panel of experts names a startled assortment of artists, scientists, writers, scholars, and more as MacArthur Foundation Fellows. On September 20, 29-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein was very surprised to learn that—like a bolt from the blue—she had been named a 2011 MacArthur Fellow. The MacArthurs are commonly known as the “genius awards,” though the foundation resists the moniker. The fellowship comes with $500,000 of “no strings attached” support over five years, plenty of acclaim, and the recognition of each recipient’s “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work.”

At first, Weilerstein thought that the phone call announcing the award might be an elaborate practical joke. But it was the real deal. So is Weilerstein. She marries formidable cello technique with emotional warmth that doesn’t veer into overstatement. She’s got orchestra gigs all over the planet right now, but what probably caught the eye of the MacArthur panel was her fascination with the music of the here and now, and her passionate devotion to social betterment through musical training, as evidenced with her ongoing work with Venezuela’s El Sistema program.

You might say music is in Weilerstein’s genes. Donald Weilerstein, her father, was first violin of the Cleveland Quartet for 20 years, and is on faculty at the New England Conservatory, where he holds the Dorothy Richard Starling Chair in Violin Studies. Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, her mother, is director of NEC’s Professional Piano Trio Training Program and serves on the school’s piano and collaborative piano studio faculties. Together, the three form the Weilerstein Trio, NEC’s piano trio in residence. And then there’s brother Joshua. The 23-year-old is one of two assistant conductors at the New York Philharmonic for the 2011-12 season, just after completing a summer in the same post at the Aspen Music Festival and School. (The clan was profiled in the September-October 2010 issue of Symphony magazine, available here.)

We caught up with the peripatetic Alisa Weilerstein as she was preparing for concerts in Frankfurt, where she had just landed after working with El Sistema in Venezuela.

Robert Sandla: You’ve been asked this question a million times by now, but … how did you feel when you learned about the MacArthur award?
Alisa Weilerstein: I was completely shocked. Initially, I had received a couple of garbled voice mails, some emails that looked very strange, from an unfamiliar address. I thought it was spam. At the time, I was in Jerusalem, playing at a festival there. In the middle of rehearsals, I shot an email back on my Blackberry saying, “I apologize, but I don’t know who you are.” I didn’t want to be rude, but you never know—it could be one of those weird “we want all your bank account information so we can help you” spam emails. But the person I dealt with was very gracious and explained that he directs a major program at the MacArthur Foundation. That sounded familiar. So I called him back. It was midnight in Jerusalem and we were all celebrating in a restaurant. I had to slip out to a quiet area so I could hear, and he explained what was going on, and that I had to keep it confidential for the moment. I think I swore loudly on the street. The whole thing came totally out of left field.

Sandla: Now that you’ve had time to think about it, does the award affect your plans?
Weilerstein: It doesn’t change the direction that my work is going to take, at least for the immediate future. Of course it’s a huge honor. I will consider very seriously how to use the money. I have not quite come up with a plan just yet. I am trying to be slow and deliberate with this. I hope to try to be the best artist that I can be. It’s important to me to try to reach out to as many young people as possible. Promoting new music is also very important to me. Those are the things that I was involved with before I knew about the grant, and hopefully I can be involved in a greater capacity now.

Sandla: The other classical musician in the list this year is Francisco Nuñez, the head of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. Did you know him?
Weilerstein: I didn’t, but we’ve now done a couple of interviews together. He’s doing incredible work with young people and music. I look at what he is doing with kids and singing and music, and it’s just amazing. You know, it’s funny but it turns out I work with some former MacArthur fellows. I play a lot of music by Osvaldo Golijov, and have worked on projects with him. I also happen to be working this week in Frankfurt with Marin Alsop and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. She got her MacArthur in 2005 and we had several discussions about that. It’s a nice coincidence.

Sandla: You’re performing all over the place these days.
Weilerstein: Last week I was in Venezuela. I go down there fairly often to play with the Simón Bolívar Symphony and Gustavo Dudamel, and I teach at El Sistema in Venezuela.

Sandla: What is it you value about El Sistema?
Weilerstein: Probably the same thing that everyone does. It has saved the lives of countless families, countless children. The first generation of El Sistema started in, I guess, 1975. Perhaps it’s a bit of a very over-used cliché, but the power of music is really something to behold when you see how much it has impacted the lives of the people involved. I see it when the Simón Bolívar orchestra plays, and when I played with orchestras in small towns. They play as if their lives depend on it. They all share that. You really see that. There are so many dedicated and passionate young musicians. To see a collective orchestra where every player is so involved … They rehearse for hours on end. It’s a very different mentality there. Music really is their life, and it’s very inspiring. I was working there with one kid who is thirteen years old. Very talented. He played Elgar’s Cello Concerto for me. I didn’t even notice the time going by go by. We worked for three hours and he still wanted more.

Sandla: Why are you drawn to new music?
Weilerstein: One can use Rostropovich as an example of a musician who worked to the benefit of our art form as well to the benefit of cellists. He premiered something like 200 new works and also inspired other new works for the cello. Some of them are the real gemstones of the repertory. Continuing to work with composers is something that all cellists really owe to future generations, to keep the art form relevant. There are so many composers now, so many exciting voices.

Sandla: I notice you use the word relevant.
Weilerstein: Let me use El Sistema as an example. My boyfriend is a part of El Sistema. His family has no music in their background at all, but they are supportive and they love it. Now he’s principal horn player of the Simón Bolívar orchestra and a wonderful conductor as well. Having the nucléos, the music schools, in his life when he was very young is the reason that he is a musician. Music was available to him and he fell in love with it. That example can be applied universally. Access, education, exposure—those are the things that inspire children. Many orchestras have young peoples’ concerts, and when I do them I sometimes think that if I inspire one person to become a musician, I’ve done something good culturally. That presents a great opportunity.