Wild (at heart); Cellist Alisa Weilerstein brings passion and intensity to her BSO debut

Alisa Weilerstein
The Boston Globe

NEW YORK - Alisa Weilerstein is lugging her cello through the labyrinthine halls of the Juilliard School, totally lost and apologizing profusely. Her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, has just called from the practice room with bad news. Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, left at home in Boston Alisa's score for Janacek's "Kreutzer Sonata" - a commissioned transcription that the Weilerstein Trio will soon premiere at Carnegie Hall.

No matter. At 26, Alisa Weilerstein is a seasoned gear-shifter as well as a masterful cellist. Parents located, instrument tuned, Weilerstein toggles from testy daughter to tender interpreter to musical dervish with an astonishing mix of precision and ardor. As she plays the mercurial music from memory, strands of Weilerstein's long hair become tangled in the cello's tuning pegs and under its strings. By the finish, the floor near her feet is strewn with horsehair from her shredded bow.

"She played that better than she does with the music in front of her," Vivian marvels. To which Alisa responds: "She would never say that to my face."

Donald and Vivian Weilerstein's first clue that their girl was more musical than most came 23 years ago, with the realization that they had no need for a baby sitter. Vivian simply plopped the toddler under the piano during practice sessions, assured of peace and quiet until the music stopped, at which point Alisa would pitch the sort of fit other kids reserve for the toy store.

On Thursday Weilerstein will make her Boston Symphony Orchestra debut, performing Brahms's Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with another rising star, Janine Jansen. In the days and weeks and months after that she will continue her (nearly lifelong) journey to the most elite ranks of classical music.

A few words come up over and over again in discussions about the cellist. Yo-Yo Ma uses all of them.

"I first heard Alisa when she was an adolescent and I remember that one of my first impressions of her playing was that she is so full of passion," Ma says in an e-mail. "More recently I was struck by how fearless Alisa is. Those two qualities, in combination with a great musical intelligence, really define her artistry for me."

Sitting in her apartment on the western edge of Harlem, Weilerstein tries to recall a time in her life which for most people precedes memory, in order to describe her deep attraction to the cello. She remembers her grandmother coming to stay with her in Rochester, N.Y., where Weilerstein spent her first seven years. Donald and Vivian both had out-of-town performances and Alisa, who was 3, had the chicken pox.

"My grandmother brought a string quartet of instruments she had made out of cereal boxes, and the cello was a Rice Krispies box. She'd cut out the F-holes and made the endpin from an old toothbrush. All I know is I didn't want anything else," Weilerstein says. "My dad had quartets over to rehearse all the time and they put out a little stool for me so that I could saw away at this thing that made no sound, and that of course became frustrating. I remember saying 'Mommy, I want a cello and cello teacher.' She told me 'Oh, no. You're too young.' But I kept asking."

Weilerstein just returned from a tour of Europe where, during the final stretch, she played nine concerts in 11 days. She estimates that since moving in four months ago she's spent four weeks total in her apartment, which is sparsely furnished with a sofa, a couple of tables, a bed, and a treadmill. (Weilerstein lived in the North End for two years, but returned to New York last fall after the relationship that brought her to Boston ended.) There's a shelf of first-rate fiction (Chekhov, Cervantes, Homer, Henry Miller) and plenty of Russian history, which was Weilerstein's major at Columbia.

Already carrying a full tour schedule when she enrolled as an 18-year-old undergraduate ("I wanted to meet normal people"), Weilerstein did classwork on planes, trains, and buses, and she can tell you where to find a library in major cities around the world. On one Japanese tour Weilerstein turned in five papers via e-mail.

But the busy, unconventional lifestyle was hardly a novelty. As a student in the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music (her father was the founding first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet), Weilerstein took academic classes in the morning, studied music all afternoon, then went home to practice cello and do her homework. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 9, but didn't speak publicly about her condition until last year, when she became a celebrity advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

"I wanted to prove I could carry a schedule just the same as anyone else," she says. "And I totally did. That's the message I want to get across: It doesn't have to change your approach to life or what you want to do."

Indeed. Self-driven and impatient, Weilerstein debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13.

"It sounds ridiculous, even to me, but at the time I felt like I had waited my whole, long life to play with an orchestra," she says. "I felt very old and very experienced and that I was finally getting to do what I had been waiting so long to do."

Call her gifted, ambitious, virtuosic, a natural. Don't call her a prodigy.

"Mozart was called the genuine prodigy and to use that word so lightly when describing someone who's very precocious . . . I have trouble with that," says Weilerstein, who is as measured in conversation as she is fervent onstage. "And there's a stigma attached to the word. When you hear someone is a prodigy you think that person is a genius, certainly, but also an abused genius who was locked in a room for 10 hours a day. Yes, I was talented and worked extremely hard. But I had as normal a childhood as I think I could have considering the fact that I was a serious cellist, and as such something of an oddball."

Vivian Weilerstein says that Alisa played cello much the way other children would play with a favorite toy.

"She was an unusual person. Language development was late - Alisa really didn't converse like other children until she was about 5," Vivian says. "But she had cello concerti memorized."

So what is it that sets Alisa Weilerstein apart from the other naturals? Composer Osvaldo Golijov calls her "a volcanic person, a beautiful restless soul." Golijov worked closely with Weilerstein on his cello concerto "Azul," first performed by Yo-Yo Ma and the BSO three years ago at Tanglewood, and which he and Weilerstein revised for the work's New York premiere at the 2007 Mostly Mozart Festival.

"I brought in a little new music every day and one day we were playing along and after about 10 minutes I say, 'No, no. You have to do it differently,' " Golijov recalls. "But it turns out she was improvising, and I had not noticed. That's how in tune Alisa is with the musical intention. She didn't say 'I'm stopping because there's no more music.' She kept going."

Weilerstein won the genetic lottery, as did her brother Josh, a violinist and conductor studying at New England Conservatory, where both of their parents are on the faculty. But it's who she is above and beyond the music - her intensity and curiosity and sense of adventure - that distinguishes Weilerstein as an artist, and creates what one longtime instructor calls the "awe factor."

"She was a fearless little girl with a big spirit who was willing to go beyond form to play music," says Richard Weiss, a cellist in the Cleveland Orchestra and Weilerstein's teacher from age 11 to 18. Weiss says he actually worried, early on, that the young musician was too wild for her own good. "My main concern was to try to foster a technique that would protect her from physically burning out."

Weiss did his job. But the search for balance is ongoing, and finding the sweet spot where form and feel collide is "the whole thing," according to Weilerstein. "Technique is only a tool, a means to the ultimate goal of being a free and honest musician."

That's a state of grace all strive for and few achieve. Among the latter group, and the first name Weilerstein mentions when asked about her role models, is the late English cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whom Weilerstein describes in language usually associated not with notes and scores, but hearts and souls.

"There's such love there," she says of du Pré. "Such generosity."

Weilerstein talks about her own affection for the cello in similar terms: the way she embraces it, how much her instrument's warm tones resemble the human voice, its wide range of emotion. Attending to that last part is where Weilerstein's fearlessness serves her - and the music, and the listener - so well. Weilerstein throws her arms around the vast emotional expanse, ecstasy and agony alike.

Performing Penderecki's savage Second Cello Concerto last year with the New York Philharmonic, Weilerstein says, her bow began to take on characteristics of a knife, and she began to feel like a murderer. It was a state so consuming, and so hard to snap out of, she had to force herself to take her bows.

"We all have the darkness inside of us, and it's easy to be afraid to go there. But the music demands it," Weilerstein says. "So you find it."