How Does a Cellist Spend a Half-Million-Dollar Grant?

Alisa Weilerstein
Strings Magazine

By Corinne Ramey

Alisa Weilerstein on the significance of her MacArthur Fellowship

During an appearance at the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival in late September, cellist Alisa Weilerstein received confusing e-mails and garbled voice mails on her phone. She replied with a terse e-mail, figuring it was spam. When she finally returned the call, the caller asked if she had heard of the MacArthur Fellowship.

“They said, ‘Someone you know very well won it.’

“And I said, ‘Who?’” Weilerstein recalls.

“Then the caller said, ‘You!’”

“I was totally shocked,” she adds. “I swore very loudly on the street.”

The cash award is a no-strings-attached $500,000, paid out over five years. The grants, awarded by the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation for creativity and future potential, have been dubbed “genius grants,” although the foundation prefers to avoid the term. In awarding the grant, the MacArthur Foundation noted Weilerstein’s commitment to “expanding the cello repertoire through collaborations with leading composers.”

Weilerstein, 29, is tight-lipped about her plans for the award, saying she’s still formulating ideas. “I’m still trying to work it out,” she says. “It’s a huge opportunity to do some really great things.”

Future career highlights include recording the Elgar concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle, and continuing to collaborate with living composers. Weilerstein is also an artist-in-residence at the Cleveland Institute of Music and plays in the Weilerstein Trio with her parents, violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. Alisa debuted with the trio at age six at a Round Top Festival Institute concert. “I think this is an incredible thing, but I don’t see this award as a statement of who someone is,” says her mother, adding that she was shocked and excited to hear about the fellowship. “What you do from the inside-out is the most important thing.”

Weilerstein is the only cellist to win the grant, and one of only a handful of string players. Previous music-world winners include violinists Regina Carter and Leila Josefowicz, conductor Marin Alsop, and composer Osvaldo Golijov.

Weilerstein has worked extensively with Golijov, who won the grant in 2003. Golijov recalls how, when rehearsing his unfinished concerto with Weilerstein, she continued to improvise the cello part even when there were no more notes on the page. “She has a synchronicity with the mind of the composer,” Golijov says, “and a fearlessness, not only with written music, but a flair for improvisation. It’s not just because she’s at the top level, but the intellectual and spiritual curiosity that has been recognized by the MacArthur people,” he adds.

Weilerstein is “diminutive with a gigantic presence,” says Cleveland Orchestra cellist Richard Weiss, Weilerstein’s teacher throughout her teenage years. “The award goes to someone who has the potential to go beyond themselves and do something for mankind,” Weiss says. “And I’m sure that she will.”