December 18, 2018

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.”

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