Café Concert: Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein

By Brian Wise

The six Bach suites represent the cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire and accordingly, interpretations often range from the hyper-rational to the dutifully reverent.

Then there’s Alisa Weilerstein's approach.

In the WQXR Café, the effusive 29-year-old evoked a classical version of Janis Joplin, fearlessly lunging into the grand emotional climaxes of Bach's Third Suite while reducing soft passages to barely a whisper. When Weilerstein plays, bow hairs break, rosin dust flies.

Earlier this month, Weilerstein brought that sense of passion to a very different piece – the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1 – with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, as part of a 15-city US tour. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini described her "organic and arresting account of a great work" while a Chicago Tribune review noted "a deep, dark intensity united to biting drama."

The daughter of two respected musicians and teachers – violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein – she began formal study of the cello at age 4 after proving her mettle with the instrument on a cardboard toy cello her grandmother made for her out of a cereal box. She gave her debut performance with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13.

She graduated with a B.A. in Russian history from Columbia University, which she attended full time while both enrolled at the Juilliard School and already pursuing a full-blown concert career.

The recipient of several awards, including an Avery Fisher Career Grant, Weilerstein has been compared to the late Jacqueline Du Pré – a similarity that was underscored in April 2010 when she made her Berlin Philharmonic debut. The program featured the Elgar Cello Concerto -- Du Pré’s signature piece – and the conductor was Daniel Barenboim, Du Pré’s husband. Together, Weilerstein and Barenboim will record the Elgar as part of her new contract with Decca.

“Jacqueline du Pre is probably my favorite cellist that ever lived,” she said. “I saw every bit of footage of her before I was ten years old – all the video and all of the recordings. I was crazy about her playing and still am.”

She said that playing the Elgar with Barenboim was “a very, very intense thing” and that Barenboim gave her several lessons on the piece itself. “What many people are surprised by is that he gave me fingerings. He gives every string player fingers. Every fingering is so expressive and to serve the larger musical purpose – to make a longer line, to stretch something to its utmost expressive possibilities.”

The slightly rock-ish persona that some have found in Weilerstein may be intensified in July when she appears at the Caramoor Festival, in Katonah, NY. Joining her will be Gabriel Kahane, the ascendant pop singer-songwriter and composer. "It's a song cycle for cello, piano and voice," she explained of the piece, called Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight. "He'll be singing at the piano. It's in eight movements and it's absolutely gorgeous."