Interview: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

American Cellist Alisa Weilerstein has a way of melding with the cello when she performs. She conveys a passion and intensity in the music, and this unprecedented ability helps bring the pieces to life. This unique partnership of musician and instrument is breathtaking to watch.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Photo: Jamie Jung

At 29, Alisa is considered one of the top young cellists in the world.

The cellist debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1995 when she was just 13. Two years later, she debuted at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony. Since those early years, she has performed around the world with notable orchestras, including the National Orchestra of Spain, the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and the Berliner Philharmoniker. Her performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in April of 2010 with Berliner was televised live worldwide and broadcast on the BBC in the UK.

In November of 2009, she was one of four musicians who performed a concert series at the White House (the other three were Violinist Joshua Bell, Guitarist Sharon Isbin and Pianist Awadagin Pratt).

As well, Alisa recently signed an exclusive recording contract with the prestigious Decca Classics. Her first recording with them (her fourth album) will be the Elgar Cello Concerto with Daniel Barenboim conducting, and the CD is scheduled for release by the end of 2012.

This season, she has performed with other notable artists, including Violinist Chee-Yun and Pianist Jeremy Denk. She’s had frequent performances with Pianist Inon Barnatan, Pianist and Composer Lera Auerbach, and Singer/Songwriter Gabriel Kahane. She has worked closely with Conductors Daniel Barenboim (Berliner Philharmoniker) and Gustavo Dudamel (Los Angeles Philharmonic). For the last seven years, she has been an integral part of the Spoleto Festival USA’s Chamber Music Series (Charleston, S.C.) and will return for her eighth season May 27-June 12, 2011.

Beginning March 22, she will perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Concerto no. 1 for Cello and Orchestra in E-flat major, op. 107 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in a 15-city U.S. tour.

As she moves forward in her career, there are more musicians and others in the music world she would love to work with.

“I’m very lucky I’m working with the greatest musical minds today,” she said last month during a phone interview. “I’d like to continue that, and I’m looking forward to my recording contract.”

The world-renowned cellist pauses at looking too far ahead in her career.

“I love what I do and I try to live in the present and near future as much as possible.”

Since her debut 16 years ago, she’s seen how the digital age has completely changed the classical music world and the way artists reach masses of people through the power of the Internet. Though she noted concern with the “decline of the recording industry,” she is proof that isn’t disappearing anytime soon.

The musician is genuinely sweet, pleasant and well grounded, and she conveys heightened enthusiasm when discussing her music.

I caught up with her when she was home in New York for one day before her next concert in Minneapolis, Minn., followed by a week in Madrid, Spain to perform Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul with the National Orchestra of Spain.

She chatted about her upcoming tour, how her studies of Russian literature have shaped her music, and what goes through her mind when she performs.

Read the interview below, followed by her concert schedule.

JML—What are you looking forward to in working with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic for your U.S. tour? What does this tour mean to you?
AW—
I have never worked with this orchestra before or (conductor) Yuri Temirkanov and I’m looking forward to collaborating with him and the orchestra, and visiting places like Chicago and Carnegie Hall. Also to meet new people and make new friends is really fun.

JML—Tell us about Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto no. 1. What is it that you like about this piece?
AW
—It has a lot in common with some of his other works. It’s deeply powerful. It’s impossible to talk about him without alluding to the political things he went through. He lived through the worst political conditions you can imagine. He suffered terrible under the regime and received death threats. It was like a very long poker game he played with the regime, and there are some references to that in his music to a degree which opens up debate.

In this piece there’s a lot of sarcasm and heartbreaking melodies with references to old Russian folk tunes and Jewish themes and it runs the gamut of those emotions. Shostakovich wrote (cellist) Mstislav Rostropovich a letter and described that first movement as a long march. The piece has sort of a cold, sarcastic quality to it where one might imagine on the surface you don’t care about anything, but you are aching. This comes out in the second and third movements. There’s a deadly dance going on. At the end of the piece, Shostakovich enters another joke. Stalin’s favorite song, Soliko (a Georgian folk song), is entered in a ridiculous way in the cello part. It’s sort of subtle.

JML—What are some challenges you had to overcome when you were learning this concerto?
AW
—The biggest challenge, as with other concertos, is the endurance. It’s an extremely physical piece. There’s a lot of weight lifting. There’s no break in the second, third and fourth movements for the cellist. In the third movement there’s a cadenza. It starts with the faintest whisper [and escalates] to explosive writing, and that’s an interesting challenge in piecing it together. There’s a suspense to the quality—it’s anxious, sarcastic. It has to be carefully built. I’ve worked for years on that to make it as effective as possible.

JML—Speaking of challenges, you performed at the White House on Nov. 4, 2009 with Zoltan Kodaly’s Sonata for Solo Cello, op. 8. Not many would consider that an “easy” piece. What is it you look for in your choice of repertoire?
AW
—The cello repertoires are not that large. I play almost everything at the center of the repertoire, though the repertoire list is quickly growing. I chose Kodaly for that venue because we (invited musicians) were asked to do a specific thing. I had ten minutes then we were to play together. I chose something that would fit within those ten minutes and for those that don’t go to classical concerts. I chose it because I adore the piece—the language is so interesting, and it offers possibilities for the cello. I’m a huge fan of Kodaly and his folk tunes. The last movement I chose because it is virtuosic and great visually with its gypsy techniques. It’s a fun, exciting dance movement. I got a unanimously positive response to it.

JML—You have a degree in Russian history at Columbia University. Why this particular interest and does that shape either the choice of or the way you play your music?
AW—
I chose it because I love Russian literature and Russian music. It helped establish my further understanding. When I play something in that and from that country, [my studies] informs it. I also found it actually informed my own practicing and the way I channel the music because I was forced to write so much and in a clear way without [flowery language] and that kind of helps focus me in a way. I noticed this especially a few years later in thinking about it differently than before I went. I’m more focused in a clear way. I think it was because of all the papers I wrote and it taught me to synthesize this information. It changed me for the better.

JML—For anyone that has seen your performances, they’ve had the privilege of observing how passionate you are about the music and your performance. When you perform on stage, what goes through your mind? What helps you bring out that passion?
AW—
Nothing but the music. Sometimes if I see myself on video I’m surprised because it’s not conscious. In my own practicing, I try to know the music as much as possible and feel as free as possible. The energy flows through my body. Playing cello takes a lot of strength and to know your body well in order to produce sound and the expression you want. It has to have flow through your body, which is something most people don’t manage. I know I play the best when the expression and distribution of weight flows freely. When performing, I try to lose myself in the music.

See more of Alisa Weilerstein:
June 11, 2010 performance of Brahms and Haydn at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C.

November 2009 White House performance

September 2010 Elgar Cello Concerto with Berliner Philharmoniker

Upcoming Performances with Alisa Weilerstein:
March 22, 2011
Los Angeles, CA
Walt Disney Concert Hall
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 23, 2011
Santa Barbara, CA
Granada Theatre
Community Arts Music Association
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Nikolai Alexeev
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 24, 2011
Palm Desert, CA
McCallum Theatre
Palm Spring Friends
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Nikolai Alexeev
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 26, 2011
Davis, CA
Mondavi Center for the Arts, UC Davis
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 27, 2011
San Francisco, CA
Davis Symphony Hall
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 30, 2011
Chicago, IL
Orchestra Hall
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

March 31, 2011
Urbana, IL
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 1, 2011
Goshen, IN
Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen College
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Nikolai Alexeev
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 5, 2011
Chapel Hill, NC
Memorial Hall
UNC Chapel Hill / Carolina Performing Arts
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 6 & 7, 2011
West Palm Beach, FL
Dreyfoos Hall, Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 8, 2011
Sarasota, FL
Van Wezel Hall
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Nikolai Alexeev
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 10, 2011
Boston, MA
Symphony Hall
Celebrity Series of Boston
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 12, 2011
North Bethesda, MD
The Music Center at Strathmore
Washington Performing Arts Society
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 14, 2011
New York, NY
Carnegie Hall, Isaac Stern Auditorium
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 16, 2011
Greenvale, NY
Tilles Center for the Performing Arts
St. Petersburg Philharmonic conducted by Yuri Temirkanov
Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1

April 29, 2011
Schaumburg, IL
Schaumburg Prairie Center for the Arts
Elgin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kazem Abdullah
Beethoven Triple Concerto
with Violinist Chee-Yun and Pianist Inon Barnatan

April 30 & May 1, 2011
Elgin, IL
Hemmens Theatre
Elgin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kazem Abdullah
Beethoven Triple Concerto
with Violinist Chee-Yun and Pianist Inon Barnatan

May 19, 21, 22, 2011
Houston, TX
Jesse H. Jones Hall
Houston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Graf
Dvorak Cello Concerto

May 27-June 12, 2011
Charleston S.C.

Spoleto Festival USA

This entry was posted in Cellists, Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *