The Israeli-born cellist Maya Beiser doesn’t give conventional recitals, and that’s an attractive calling card at the Ojai Music Festival, which prides itself on innovation and diversity. In its 69th year, the five-day festival starts June 10, with Beiser making three appearances in her Ojai debut.
On June 12, Beiser joins music director and percussionist Steven Schick — both are founding members of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars — for a performance of Osvaldo Golijov’s touching “Mariel,” for cello and marimba. The concert also includes Michael Harrison’s “Just Ancient Loops,” a 25-minute score showcasing the virtuoso cellist’s range and employing “just intonation,” an ancient tuning system.
Things go more off trail on June 13, when Beiser, joined by bassist Gyan Riley and Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, uses her classical training in reimagining music by rockers Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Janis Joplin and Howlin’ Wolf. On June 14, the cellist brings Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’s new “Kol Nidrei” to the festival, with Beiser singing the text in Aramaic while conjuring the score’s ancient cantorial styles. The concert also includes works by Chinary Ung, Bright Sheng and others.
“I grew up in a melting pot,” said Beiser, who was raised on a kibbutz in Galilee, in the northern region of Israel. “I heard Argentinian tango, Jacques Brel, and I was surrounded by Arabic music,” she said in a phone interview from her home in New York.
Beiser’s father, whom she called “a Jewish gaucho,” grew up in a Jewish enclave on the South American pampas, became a Zionist and moved to Israel. He encouraged her love for the cello by playing old Pablo Casals recordings. Beiser’s French-Jewish mother brought Brel into the mix.
A turning point came in Beiser’s early life, when a teacher was needed, “but there was no cello teacher on the kibbutz,” she said.
“I remember my father taking me through a barricaded area for cello lessons. There was such a sense of freedom, and I realized the cello was my ticket to the world. It would take me far away from the kibbutz.”
She was discovered by the great violinist Isaac Stern, and with his mentoring, Beiser’s international career took off. The cellist also pointed to her father’s high expectations as a driving force: “It was either Wimbledon or Carnegie Hall,” she said, referring to her other early talent, on the tennis court. “It was that Jewish blood thing, especially in the 1970s when I grew up. The sense that you have to accomplish something, and music resonated with me.”
Schick, the first percussionist to become music director in the Ojai Festival’s history, and who is also godfather to Beiser’s two children, revels in the cultural mix that she, and musicians such as Wu Man, a Chinese pipa player (a pipa is a four-string lute-like instrument), bring to the festival.
“As percussionists, we presume this cultural intermingling,” Schick said. “We take it as part of our birthright, and it’s a beautiful thing.”
Thomas W. Morris, artistic director of the festival, agreed. “The boundaries between genres is collapsing,” he said. “There are more possibilities than in the past, and Ojai needs this diversity of styles.”
Fairouz, a new composer to the festival, said Beiser is like a sister to him. “We are both creatures of the desert,” he said. “Essential storytellers. In my ‘Kol Nidrei,’ Maya captures the inherent theatricality of this ancient Aramaic prayer.”
Fairouz’s new cello concerto, composed for Beiser, will be given its premiere by the cellist in January 2016, with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
“I was immediately drawn to Momo,” Beiser said, using an affectionate name for Fairouz. “Our mutual history is compelling. He’s an incredible composer who happens to be a Muslim, Arabic Palestinian.”
Beiser attributes her multicultural and crossover musical inclinations to an early love of progressive rock, and especially of vocalist Janis Joplin. “I was a classical-music geek, but when I was about 15 or 16, I discovered Joplin,” Beiser said. “Her raw immediacy was such a revelation. I wanted to do that with the cello. There was this fearlessness of putting yourself out there.”
One way Beiser expands the range of her instrument is by switching back and forth from acoustic to electric. “I’ve always loved electronic music,” she said, citing the eclectic English musician Mike Oldfield and the electronic/experimental music superstar Laurie Anderson as role models. “Usually, when I play an electric cello, I process the sound, using the same pedals guitarists Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page used. I can make the cello sound like an electric guitar.”
For Beiser, there is no single way to play music, whether it’s classical, rock or progressive. “When I began working with composers, I realized how relative all these things are,” she said. “Who says there can’t be 10 different ways something can be interpreted?”
The cellist realizes that straying far from the conventional may risk alienating both her classical and crossover audiences.
“You have to trust your artistic impulses,” she said. “I want to make concert music a relevant art form for my generation. I think about taking a risk every day. If a path is too padded, you go into automatic pilot. I’ll always take a left turn at some point.”
Israeli Air Force, front and center on film
Cellist Weilerstein brings worldly depth to SoCal stages
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein grew up in a thriving Jewish community in Cleveland, where before she became a bat mitzvah, she had already made her debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Now 30, Weilerstein is the first cellist in more than 30 years to be signed to an exclusive contract by Decca Classics. Her debut recording, released last month with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, confirms her stature as one of the finest cellists of her generation and an artist at a new peak of technical and musical maturity.
For those not satisfied with listening to her on CD, however, she will be making a series of appearances in the Southland beginning next month. Audiences everywhere, from Orange County to Glendale to West Los Angeles, will have a chance to hear her artistry in person.
Weilerstein’s new disc represents a fascinating synthesis of several key interests in her musical life. In addition to a touching rendition of Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre,” she delivers stunning accounts of Edward Elgar’s moving 1919 Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85, and Elliott Carter’s bracing and rhythmically complex 2001 Cello Concerto.
The Elgar concerto was a specialty of the late British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, one of Weilerstein’s long-time musical idols, whose career was cut short at age 28 by multiple sclerosis. Du Pré made four recordings of the work, including a benchmark 1965 interpretation on EMI with conductor John Barbirolli, and two conducted by Du Pré’s husband, Barenboim.
“I listened to every single recording and saw every bit of footage on du Pré before I was 10 years old,” said Weilerstein, speaking by phone during a stop in Los Angeles to visit a friend. “I was obsessed with her as a child. Her playing had a direct line to the soul.”
The turning point in Weilerstein’s career came in May 2009, when she played the Elgar concerto with Barenboim at the piano. He asked her to come for another session and afterward asked if she’d like to play a televised concert with him and the Berlin Philharmonic.
“I was just in complete shock,” Weilerstein said. “Of course, I gave a very enthusiastic yes, but afterward I walked out of Carnegie Hall with my cello and wound up somewhere in Central Park. I was so completely stunned.”
According to Weilerstein, Barenboim, who stopped performing the Elgar for years after his wife died, still knew the concerto inside and out.
“It was really a remarkable experience, because he provided such insight into structural, musical and even technical things, which is very unusual for a pianist,” Weilerstein said. “He talked about very specific string techniques. But, of course, he was playing with du Pré constantly and with [Itzhak] Perlman and [Pinchas] Zukerman.”
By coupling the tuneful, emotional Elgar work with the challenging Carter Cello Concerto, Weilerstein shows she’s serious about making the music of her time available to audiences.
“If we’re really going to make contemporary music a part of the mainstream repertory, you have to pair it with mainstream repertory, because that way you show the trajectory,” Weilerstein said.
“You have to show where you’ve come from to show where things are going. I strongly believe in having new music juxtaposed with, let’s say, old music.”
Weilerstein said the Carter concerto was new to her repertory. “It couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the Elgar concerto and, for that reason, it’s actually a wonderful pairing,” she said. “You have these real contrasts as to what the cello is capable of. The cello is a chameleon that can take on so many roles.”
Weilerstein said when she played the concerto for Carter, who died at age 103 earlier this month, she discovered the composer was “extremely exact about what he wanted.” She also realized the pitfalls of performing such a difficult work.
“You have to bring drama and life to it,” Weilerstein said. “If you approach it purely from an academic standpoint, it’s kind of a disaster for the music. You have to be true to what’s on the page, but at the same time, the music allows for a lot of artistic freedom when you’re playing it.”
The cellist will be displaying her versatility over the next several months in Southern California. She is scheduled to perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with the Pacific Symphony, led by guest conductor Alexander Shelley, on Dec. 6, 7 and 8 at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.
Weilerstein said that the Carter concerto is similar to Dvorak in one respect. “The cello is always in the forefront. Even though it may not seem this way, the Carter is kind of a hero concerto,” Weilerstein said. “The cello is the protagonist, and the orchestra is in a supporting role most of the time. It’s very dramatic.”
On March 1, Weilerstein performs Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, kicking off a 16-city tour with the conductor-less Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
The Academy concert also features Inon Barnatan, the brilliant Israeli pianist and Weilerstein’s preferred recital partner, who will be playing Bach’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor. “He’s a fantastic musician and also one of my best friends,” Weilerstein said about Barnatan. “One searches for a while for this kind of chemistry. Something happened, even when we first read together.”
Barnatan said that Weilerstein “understands that the music is more important than ego. For two soloists to work together takes an equal investment of both instruments. It’s not about a star — a cello and accompanist or piano and obbligato. We push each other musically and arrive at this common performance and energy that we love experiencing.”
The pianist recalled the first time they played together for a concert series. “We wanted to be spontaneous and didn’t over-rehearse,” Barnatan recalled. “We felt we could bounce off each other and let it rip.” The day before, they played on radio as a warm-up. “The host said we must have been playing together for a long time, and without batting an eyelid, Alisa looked at him and said, ‘about a year and a half.’ She didn’t want to embarrass either side by saying that we’d only met a few days ago.”
On May 18 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale, and repeated the next evening at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Weilerstein is scheduled to join the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for Shostakovich’s epic Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 107 — a change of pace from the Elgar.
“In Elgar’s music, the expression is very direct,” Weilerstein said. “There’s an intimacy and personal quality and a kind of tragedy that is so unique to the Elgar. That’s one reason it’s so touching. But Shostakovich’s music can’t appear direct. You have the sarcasm and so many double meanings. The first and last movements in particular, the really sardonic quality, the perpetual motion and relentlessness of it — this could not be more opposed from the Elgar.”
Weilerstein has already recorded her second album for Decca, all solo music, including Zoltán Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata, a 35-minute masterpiece of the cello repertory.
“It really pushes the cello to its limits,” Weilerstein said.” There was virtually nothing written in the 19th century [for solo cello]. Kodály broke that barrier. Now we have an embarrassment of riches of 20th century music for the cello.”
Like her idol Jacqueline du Pré, Weilerstein’s life has not been without its challenges. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 9 and was initially cautious about revealing her condition.
“I was quite secretive until it became clear to everybody that I could carry on as normal a schedule as anybody else,” she said. “I’ve managed it very successfully for the past 21 years.”
As a celebrity advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation since 2008, Weilerstein speaks to young families with newly diagnosed children, bringing a very clear message that comes from experience.
“There are marathon runners, actors, musicians, writers and lawyers with Type 1 diabetes,” she said. “You really can be anything you want, if you take care of yourself. It doesn’t have to curtail your dreams in any way.”
When Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) holds its summer concert on Aug. 18, it will be a bittersweet occasion for cellist David Low. The BBI artistic director has overseen the summer concerts for 12 years, and is now leaving to spend more time with his wife and children, and to pursue his music career in the film industry.
The last summer concert, to be held outdoors at BBI’s hillside House of the Book, will feature The New Hollywood String Quartet performing Bernard Hermann’s memorable scores for Alfred Hitchcock classics such as "North by Northwest" and "Psycho." The chamber orchestra, 13 players including Low on the cello, will be led by Lucas Richman, long associated with Brandeis-Bardin and now assistant conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony.
Low, 39, came to BBI straight out of Juilliard and has been BBI’s artistic director since 1989. Simultaneously, his work as a music contractor and a musician for film and television has slowly come to dominate his career. He has worked as a musician on 400 film scores, including "Schindler’s List," the "Jurassic Park" films, "Titanic" and "Minority Report," and will soon work on the new "Star Trek" motion picture.
Low was born in Israel, but by the age of 3 had moved to Van Nuys. The son of veteran Jewish Journal contributing writer Yehuda Lev, Low says he was inspired by his father to become active in Jewish life. "When I was young it was amazing to hear him do public speaking," Low says.
During his reign as artistic director at BBI, Low has overseen summer concerts every year, which in the past have included Israeli groups such as Esta, and singers David Broza and Shlomo and Neshama Carlebach.
At BBI, Low says he has enjoyed being able to perform and help educate open-minded audiences. "The weirdest thing is to have a 17-year-old come up and say, ‘Oh, I remember you. You played in my bunk when I was 8.’"
He is not really leaving BBI. "You can only do so many jobs," he says, then adding, "I couldn’t have done what I’m doing now without the experience of working there. My relationship will always be with BBI. It will just change."