For busy cellist, CSO world premiere all in a day's work

Alisa Weilerstein
Chicago Tribune

When people ask Alisa Weilerstein if she has a favorite among the works written for her instrument, she briskly replies: "I'm a cellist — I don't have the luxury of favorites."

In recent years, the fast-rising, 34-year-old American cellist has thrown her clout behind new cello works by Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and Joseph Hallman. She also has championed concertante pieces for cello and orchestra by German composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher, one of which she will premiere next season with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

At the moment, however, the big new work in Weilerstein's life is French composer Pascal Dusapin's "Outscape," a cello concerto co-commissioned for her by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The cellist will give the world premiere at this week's CSO subscription concerts, under the baton of Cristian Macelaru. She's scheduled to give subsequent performances in Paris and Stuttgart, Germany.

Speaking by telephone from the home in Berlin she shares with her husband, Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, and their newborn daughter, Arianna, Weilerstein made no secret of her admiration of Dusapin ("a very warm person and a fantastic composer") and the challenging but rewarding work he wrote for her.

"Pascal writes very honestly and directly for the cello," she said. "The solo part is very virtuosic, but it also takes advantage of the instrument's lyrical, expressive voice. One could almost describe it as neoromantic, in that it is emotionally very open, yet its orchestration and language are absolutely of today. It's a single-movement arch form, a very long crescendo that turns into something quite wild and a bit frightening."

Dusapin did not seek advice from Weilerstein while he was working on the piece, nor did she offer ideas of her own. Their only contact, she said, was through a steady stream of correspondence.

"He sent me the freshly inked score with a note saying 'Here it is, enjoy!' I am enjoying it!"

While composing the piece, Dusapin familiarized himself with Weilerstein's sound and playing style by immersing himself in her recordings. "I tried to integrate her musical soul with my musical conception," he explained via email.

The concerto was virtually complete when cellist and composer met for the first time following a concert she gave last year at the Philharmonie de Paris. Her soulful rendition of her encore, a Bach saraband, so "amazed" him that he immediately went back to his manuscript to incorporate his reaction in the cello line (marked "calm and a little sad") that concludes the concerto.

Dusapin has disavowed allegiance to any single "French clique," insisting he's learned from composers as diverse in style as Edgard Varese, Pierre Boulez and Steve Reich. He intends "Outscape" to form the second part of a multipart cycle about nature. The first part, "Morning in Long Island" (2010), was inspired by a sleepless night he once spent at the beach in winter. Musical ideas for a projected third part are kicking around his head, he said.

Chicago audiences are going to hear a good deal of Weilerstein this summer. She will return to the Chicago Symphony for a concert at Ravinia on July 16 that will include the Elgar Cello Concerto, with Andrew Davis conducting. Four nights later, on July 20, she will join her fellow MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, conductor Marin Alsop, for Golijov's "Azul," at the Grant Park Music Festival.

The cellist, accompanied by her frequent chamber music partner, pianist Inon Barnatan, recently added an album of the Rachmaninov and Chopin cello sonatas to her growing Decca discography. Awaiting release this fall are her performances of the two Shostakovich cello concertos, with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Pablo Heras-Casado.

So everything would appear to be falling into place for Weilerstein, a new mother who is about to bring a new cello concerto into the world.

The cellist retains the clear-eyed vision of herself as a person and artist that she had when she was in her late teens. Consider an interview she gave to The New York Times in 2001, when she was all of 18. Asked about her future goals, she replied: "Never to lose the love I have for the cello and music. Always to keep a fresh perspective. Never to have a 'veteran's' jaded look at what I'm doing. Never to stop learning."

Thus far, she's stuck by every word.
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