No toying around: Alisa Weilerstein and the cello in Aspen

08.01.12
Alisa Weilerstein
The Aspen Times

By Stewart Oksenhorn

ASPEN — Well into his teens, Joshua Weilerstein looked like he was going to avoid going into the family business of making classical music. His sister Alisa, older by six years, knew better than to push him.

“I firmly believe it has to come from the individual,” she said.

Alisa Weilerstein knows what it is to have that focused, internal drive. When she was 2 1/2, and her parents — Vivian, a pianist, and Donald, a violinist — were both out on tour, her grandmother made her a set of toy instruments so she could play “string quartet.” Alisa ignored the two violins, bypassed the viola and went straight for the cello. Made from a Rice Krispies box, with f-holes drawn on and an old green toothbrush for an endpin, the cello became her favorite toy.

When her parents returned, Weilerstein was joyful — she could sit in on living-room music sessions. But by age 4, she grew frustrated as she realized the chopstick she was using as a bow made no actual sound. She begged for a cello and a teacher.

Weilerstein's passion has never wavered.

“I was always sure,” she said of her love for music, her choice of instrument and her decision to make music a career. “I know it's sort of weird, but ... ”

Her brother eventually developed a desire to pursue music, first as a violinist in his mid-teens and more recently as a conductor. Now 24, he has done a fine job catching up: Joshua spent last summer as the assistant conductor at the Aspen Music Festival and is currently an assistant conductor for the New York Philharmonic.

The entire family congregates Wednesday in Aspen — where Vivian and Donald taught for many years and where Alisa and Joshua have studied — for a Weilerstein Family recital. Though Alisa and her parents have the Weilerstein Trio, which performs occasionally and is in residence at the New England Conservatory of Music, Wednesday marks the first appearance of the quartet of Weilersteins. Along with playing works by Kodály and Janácek, the foursome will be joined by violist Masao Kawasaki and cellist Michael Mermagen for Brahms' String Sextet No. 1.

On Sunday, Joshua will conduct his sister and the Aspen Festival Orchestra in Dvorák's Cello Concerto in B minor. Also on the program is Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. It will be the third time that Joshua has conducted his sister and the first time they are playing the Dvorák piece together.

Alisa says the family members have distinct personalities. In interviews, Joshua comes off as laid-back and regular-guy-ish, Alisa as more formal — there is hardly mistaking that she is someone engaged in a serious pursuit. On stage, though, any differences disappear in a common musical vision.

“There's such a deep musical bond between the four of us,” Alisa said Tuesday morning by the pool at the Gant Condominiums, where she was in a dress and high shoes. “The fact that we share core musical values so deeply, it makes any difference kind of insignificant. So the result is always satisfying. We're four individuals with lots of strong ideas. But there's a deep underlying respect between us.”

While Alisa's love for the cello is complete, she has one problem with the repertoire: There is not enough of it.

“There's no Mozart sonatas; very little Haydn; no Schubert solo repertoire, just arrangements,” she said. “That makes me sad — three composers I love didn't write much for cello. It's frustrating that we don't have more repertoire from the Classical period. We have the Bach suites, Romantic, Baroque.”

Weilerstein mentions with admiration Mstislav Rostropovich, the Russian cellist who formed bonds with composers, including Shostakovich and Prokofiev, that resulted in a significant expansion of the cello literature. Weilerstein aims to follow a similar path. She and the Boston Symphony have commissioned a concerto from German-born, New York-based Matthias Pintscher to debut in 2014. She has collaborated with Osvaldo Golijov. Golijov rewrote his 2006 orchestral piece “Azul” for Weilerstein after it had been premiered by Yo-Yo Ma. She performed the piece to enormous applause in Aspen in 2008.

Last year, Weilerstein gave the world premiere of a song cycle for cello and piano, “Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight,” by Gabriel Kahane. (Kahane gives a solo performance, on guitar, Thursday at Belly Up.) Weilerstein has a close alliance with Lera Auerbach, a composer and pianist who appeared earlier this summer in Aspen. The two have performed Auerbach's 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano, and when asked if they were working on a new piece, Weilerstein seemed to know more than she could let on.

“Not at the moment. But we will talk,” she said.

“I think that's my job, to form relationships with composers,” she continued. “If a great result comes from it, that's very good for the repertoire.”

Given Weilerstein's recent accomplishments, it isn't much of a stretch to put her in the company of Rostropovich. Last year she was a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (commonly known as the “Genius” grant). On May 1, 2010, in Oxford, England, she performed the Elgar Cello Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic; it was an annual event to commemorate the founding of the Berlin Phil, and Weilerstein says a billion people watched.

Last year she signed with Decca, the first cellist to be signed to the label in three decades. Her debut album for Decca, due out in November, will feature the Elgar Concerto and Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto, from 2001, recorded with conductor Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, as well as Bruch's “Kol Nidrei.”

“I have very little experience recording,” Weilerstein said. “I look forward to more of that.”

Weilerstein is also eager to get to the cello repertoire that she hasn't explored yet, including Lutoslawski's concerto and the concerto by Dutilleux, which was commissioned by Rostropovich.

Weilerstein cannot fathom what it was about the cello that spoke to her so clearly when she was a toddler. But she's got a good idea of why music continues to captivate her.

“I've always believed music was the purest form of communication we have, the most direct,” she said. “It needs no translation. It's cross-cultural. It's so deep. There was no doubt, there was nothing else I wanted to do in my life.”