Stringtime in London — the star of this year’s Proms

Alisa Weilerstein
London Times

The cellos are coming! This summer’s BBC Proms, announced yesterday, will feature no fewer than ten cello concertos, as well as a chamber music concert for multiple cellos. An article about the cello invasion in the new Proms booklet is headlined “No more second fiddle”, which is slightly bizarre — but we know what it means. Alisa Weilerstein certainly does. “Whenever I tell people I play the cello, they always say. ‘Oh, it’s my favourite instrument’,” she says. “Yet most orchestras will programme a maximum of two cello concertos a year — far fewer than violin concertos. And piano concertos are more widespread still.” 
True, but Weilerstein — who will be playing a newish work by the German composer Matthias Pintscher at the Proms — never has any trouble filling a hall. That’s not surprising. The American, who turns 34 next Monday, is widely regarded as second only to the great Yo-Yo Ma among present-day cellists.
 I am chatting to her in a little café in Berlin and experiencing a weird feeling of déjà vu at one generation’s remove, if such a thing is metaphysically possible. Nearly 40 years ago, in almost my first job in journalism, I interviewed the entire Cleveland Quartet in the course of an intellectually terrifying meal at a pizza restaurant in Swiss Cottage, north London. The leader of that magnificent ensemble, then ranked as America’s top string quartet, was Donald Weilerstein, Alisa’s father. Now the daughter, 34 weeks pregnant, is sitting opposite me. I wonder silently if I will find myself interviewing the as-yet-unborn granddaughter when I’m about 98. 
It’s certainly possible that somebody will, because the Weilersteins are a musical dynasty. Alisa’s mother, Vivian Hornik, is a pianist (the three of them still play piano trios together), and her brother Joshua is a violinist and conductor. Was it inevitable that she would go into music? “Actually no,” she replies. “It was very much ‘follow your heart’, and if I had become an accountant that would have been fine too.”
 Nevertheless, with the Cleveland Quartet rehearsing almost daily in their house, music must have seemed a natural part of life to the toddling Alisa. “One day I just said, ‘Mummy I want a cello’,” she recalls. “She replied, ‘You’re only four, that’s a bit young’, but apparently I kept on asking. I had my first lesson on a 1/16-size cello when I was four and a half. 
“After that I became totally obsessed with Jacqueline du Pré. I saw every bit of footage of her before I was ten and listened to her recordings nonstop. Then I had to force myself to put them away so I wouldn’t copy her.” No wonder that when Weilerstein played Elgar’s Cello Concerto in the Sheldonian in Oxford a few years ago with du Pré’s former husband Daniel Barenboim conducting, the performance struck older listeners as the finest they had heard since du Pré’s tragic withdrawal from the concert-hall.
 At the Proms, Weilerstein will be playing Pintscher’s Reflections on Narcissus. “Good title, huh?” she says. 
Agreed — but who’s supposed to be Narcissus? The cello? The soloist? “Neither!” she says, laughing. “However, you can definitely hear the moment when he falls in the pool. It’s in five movements, pretty continuous. In the first you hear the water rippling. The second has a foreboding quality, with the cello very low. The third escalates the tension, and the fourth has cello cadenzas contrasted by wild, ear-splitting bursts for full orchestra. That’s where Matthias writes in an incredibly high range for the cello — the nose-bleed range, as we say, with pitches so high that you think only dogs will hear them. This is the movement where you imagine a disaster has happened. Then you get a very tragic ending. It’s a powerful piece, incredibly dramatic and a fantastic vehicle for cello and orchestra. In fact I can’t imagine a better work for the Albert Hall and the Proms.”
 It was while she was playing the Dvorák in Venezuela seven years ago with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Orchestra that she met her future husband. At the time Rafael Payare was the Bolívar Orchestra’s principal horn player. “The rest is history,” she says happily. 
Towards the end of my interview Payare arrives to pick his wife up. Obviously the couple have set up home in Berlin — where else would you expect an American woman and a Venezuelan man whose main job is in Belfast to live? “I love Berlin,” Weilerstein says. “The amazing concentration of culture, the diversity, the feeling of being at an international crossroads. I hear more English and Hebrew on the streets than I do German.”
 How will the new baby change things? Weilerstein plays her last concert when nearly 35 weeks pregnant but makes light of the physical problems involved. “One of the few advantages of being type 1 diabetic is that I can’t eat very much, so I gained a minimal amount of weight and my energy levels stayed high.” She says that it will be business as normal from the summer onwards, with the new babe travelling with her around the globe.Will Payare change nappies? “Of course!” she says. “There will be a fight if not. We have a very egalitarian relationship. Being behind the times wouldn’t work for either of us.”
Alisa Weilerstein plays at the BBC Proms on August 21. The first cello concerto at the Proms is the Elgar, performed at the First Night (July 15) Read the rest of the review here