Many strings to brilliant cellist's bow, including philanthropy

06.11.13
Alisa Weilerstein
Sydney Morning Herald

By Harriet Cunningham

Alisa Weilerstein is cellist du jour. In 2010, she became the first classical cellist in 30 years to sign a record deal with the prestigious label Decca.

In 2011, she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, a title that comes with a no-strings-attached stipend of $US500,000. And at the end of 2012 her first CD with Decca was released, Elgar's Cello Concerto, with the Staatskapelle Berlin under conductor Daniel Barenboim, who last recorded the work with his wife, the legendary Jacqueline du Pre.

Weilerstein, who appears with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne this week, says the MacArthur Fellowship caught her completely by surprise.

"It's just such an honour to be in the company not only of great musicians and great artists but also great scientists. When they gave me the award they said they recognised me for my creativity and wanted to give me the freedom to continue on that path and expand. And that is what I am doing; what I'm trying to do for the rest of the life."

Her plans are still unfolding, but her relationship with Decca gives her a blank canvas on which to work: anything is possible. There is a recording of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in the pipeline, and a solo album, centred around the work of Hungarian composer Kodaly, and featuring music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

While Weilerstein talks of the ''warhorses'' of the classical repertoire with great affection, creating new work is a priority.

"To play concerts, to develop relationships with composers, to be a strong spokesperson for new music and for the music of my time … that's what I have to do."

The cellist's other driving passion is her involvement with El Sistema, Venezuela's revolutionary music education system, which uses music as an agent of social change, and the orchestra as a utopian, nurturing society.

Venezuela has more youth orchestras than Germany and Austria combined, and more than 70 per cent of the participants come from poor backgrounds.

"I was invited to play with Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra with Gustavo Dudamel in December 2009, and since then I have visited the country maybe 30 times, not only to Caracas but to several towns in the interior. I've seen first-hand what effect music can have.

"To really see active change in a person's life, to be impacted by the power of music, this is completely remarkable and I feel all the more responsible to give this to as many people as possible.''

Alisa Weilerstein plays Shostakovich's Cello Concerto with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra at Sydney Opera House on Tuesday and at Melbourne Recital Centre on June 12.