The James Naughtie Interview: Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein
BBC Music Magazine

The prodigiously gifted American cellist has been performing in public since the age of 12, but it was one very important invitation in 2010 that launched her career into the stratosphere…
The scariest moment of Alisa Weilerstein’s young career is one that would have any of us calling for a comfort blanket or a stiff drink. She found herself playing for Daniel Barenboim in New York, in his room at Carnegie Hall – at his request. And what did she have to play? The Elgar Cello Concerto.
For a young cellist brought up with the recordings left by Jacqueline du Pré, to have to play that Concerto for the musician who married du Pré and shared her tragedy was, as she puts it herself, a mountainous task. It’s one from which some young musicians would have run a mile. Accompanying her on the piano was a friend, conductor Asher Fisch.
‘We ran it through without stopping. Just like that.’ Barenboim listened. And then? He asked if she would like to play it with him and the Berlin Philharmonic. She didn’t know what to say. ‘Well, do you want to do it? Do you?’, he said. She eventually got her ‘yes’ out, and he told her to keep quiet about it for the moment. Clearly dazed, she then found herself having walked the length of Central Park carrying her cello, without knowing how she got there.
The concerts that resulted, in Berlin, London and Oxford, were landmarks in a career that has already given Weilerstein a reputation as a musician with a remarkable power and directness. The Guardian critic said of the Oxford performance that it was the most devastating live account of the Concerto he had ever heard. Still in her twenties, Weilerstein promises to be one of the cello’s dominating masters.
We meet in Berlin, where she curls up happily on the sofa and talks about it all – a childhood in Rochester, New York; her love of the stage; her passion for contemporary music for the cello…But we begin with Barenboim.
It was Asher Fisch who introduced them, at the Met in New York – Barenboim suggested that she should play for him the following day (actually, it was an instruction). So she went to his hotel room and played some Haydn, Dvorak and Beethoven for an hour. He told her to come to see him in Europe, so they met a few months later between performances at La Scala, and he took her through the Dvorak Concerto. ‘It was experience like I had never had before: incredible. I could use every word to describe it.’ Whey? ‘With him, you get the complete package.’
Thy spent three hours on the piece, and what astonished her was the extent to which he was suggesting expressive fingerings that might work in certain passages – something she had never had from someone who wasn’t a trained string player. Bowing speeds, too.
‘And he taught me how to make connection. Just in that three-hour session. He explained how the Dvorak piece is connected inside. You know how the first movement can seem a bit disjointed and episodic? He erased that whole concept from my mind in an instant. For me it was an entirely new way of thinking.’
The encounter with Barenboim comes to fruition on disc next year, when she will record the Elgar with him and his Berlin Staatskapelle, coupled with an Elliott Carter Concert from 2001 – both live performances, the Elgar being recorded at concerts in April When she signed for Decca Classics, she was the first cellist to be taken on by the label for 30 years. Next year, just before she turns 30, is likely to be another big leap in her career.
To return to the beginning, we talk about childhood. Both parents were musicians – her father, Donald, was first violin in the Cleveland Quartet and her mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a well-known pianist. Both her parents are renowned teachers, and since Alisa was six they have performed as the Weilerstein Trio. So, of course, the house was always full of music, not least because the Cleveland players often used to rehearse there when she was very young. She tells a story of her very first cello, made out of a Rice Krispies packet with the help of her babysitting grandmother, who was an artists. With a green toothbrush for a bow, and soundholes cut in the cardboard, she played along, aged two.
So the cello found her. ‘I never wanted it to be anything else. I would sit there desperately trying to make a sound. When I was four I said I wanted a cello and a teacher. It was an instinctive thing, something I was extremely sure about. I’ve never doubted it, maybe because it was never really a conscious thing. It was just the instrument I wanted, and that was that.’
The choice worked. By the age of 14 she was a performer who was being noticed, and in the years that followed she took care to learn the core of the repertoire – as she points out, the great pieces are relatively few in number – playing with small city orchestras across the States. Appropriately her first recordings were with her parents – a selection of pieces for cello and piano, and a disc of Dvorak trios. They are exuberant and already reveal the passion that she brings out in her music-making; she is never cerebral in a distant way, always engaged.
By the time she was 20 – already the recipient of several awards before she went to Columbia to read Russian history – the course was set. That early love affair with the instrument was fully consummated.
‘It’s a very physical thing. You embrace the instrument, and you can feel everything about it. It’s a very natural, warm position –  much more natural than the violin.’ There speaks a devotee of yoga, which is part of her exercise routine and, of course, an emotional discipline too. ‘Yoga is about discovering the centre of energy – where it comes from. And with the cello you always have to find where that centre is, and distribute it.’
As she talks – we’re in a rented apartment in what my generation knew as East Berlin, not far from Unter den Linden – she’s relaxed and happy on that sofa with her shoes off, full of the excitement of performance and willing to talk about the emotion that it generates for her. Watching performances – even DVD accounts of the Oxford Elgar, or Dvorak with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, you sense the visceral thrill that she can create on stage. Her musicianship is beautifully assured, and she brings to the instrument (she plays a 1790 William Forster cello) a free passion that is enticing.
‘With the pieces that I play often – the Dvorak, for example – I find that it’s important to be inside and outside the music at the same time, if that doesn’t sound odd. You’ve got to be in there – feeling it all, and I do. But at the same time you have to be able to sit back and see it from another perspective – while you’re plaing. I guess it’s managing the subjective and the objective at the same time. It’s the place where I try to be.
‘And sometimes it’s overwhelming. When I played the Penderecki Concerto – it’s difficult, very violent – I was emotionally devastated at the end. I just sat in my dressing room for about 20 minutes. I guess I sulked a bit. I was just drained. I was imaging gruesome scenes. I couldn’t talk to anyone for a little while. That’s kind of unusual for me,’ she laughs, ‘because I’m pretty gregarious as a rule.’
Gregarious and open, indeed, and that’s the spirit she brings to the stage, where she says she’s always felt at home. Never terrified? ‘No fear, ever. Proper excitement, butterflies and all that. But never cold fear. I just love it.’
It’s worth watching recording of some concert performances to realize what that temperament, and mentality, brings to the stage. She appears to be a natural conduit for the music – someone through whom it has decided to flow in full measure. The technique – formidable, of course – seems to slip into the background, and be accepted simply for what it is. As a consequence, the music floods out, apparently uninhibited by anything that she puts in its way. Yet there is nothing wild about her; the passions are perfectly expressed, with a profound feeling that each note, each composer’s instruction, is there for a purpose. Everything is in its place, and as a consequence that natural power of the music it let loose.
Her gift is an instantly appealing one. The Barenboim story is in intriguing one because there is at least on very well known cellist from whom he had a request that they should play the Elgar Concerto together. The answer was an emphatic ‘no’. It can’t be fanciful to imagine that in hearing Weilerstein, he was experiencing some of the searing directness that he lived through with du Pré.
Weilerstein says that, for her, the cello is the most direct of instruments. ‘It’s like the human voice, of course. And it has such a range – so much greater than the violin. I think it is the one that maybe speaks to you most powerfully, clearly.’ She finds it hard to understand how it took so long for composers to write for it as a solo instrument, especially in view of the Bach Cello Suites. She mentions Brahms’s put-down, having listened to the Dvorak. ‘If I had known that such a thing were possible, I would have tried it myself…’ Never mind. That’s history now.
One of her characteristics – a refreshing one in a young artist of such power – is her attraction to contemporary music being written for her instrument. She has close relationships with composers like Lera Auerbach, and is working hard at widening the instrument’s repertoire for concert audiences around the world who have heard little of the recent music written for it. Matthias Pinscher’s Reflections on Narcissus she cites as an example of the excitement coming along all the time (though she says it is a formidably difficult piece to play) – a piece for cello and orchestra first heard in this country five years ago. He’s been commissioned to write a concerto for her and the Boston Symphony, which is hoping to find a European partner.
Alongside that enthusiasm is her passion for young listeners, for whom she says she always programmes some 20th-century music. She notes, in the course of our conversation, that with the young, a Benjamin Britten Sonata will usually come out on top for popularity, simply because of it direct appeal.
The mix in Weilerstein is appealing. She lives for her music, whether with her parents or on the dozens of concert platforms that she now visits every year. And she’s a thinking musician, concerned about how to appeal to hungry young ears and how – particularly in her own country – to keep the tradition of serous music alive for those who are leaving schools where they’ve heard not a note of it.
Listening to her play is a rich experience. Among soloists of world renown who are still under 30, surely she is one of the most extraordinary. The Elgar disc, I predict without any fea of disappointment, will be a landmark. And there will be many more to come.