MEANT TO BE
On the eve of her Australian tour, lauded American cellist Alisa Weilerstein talks — and sings — to Matthew Westwood
ALISA Weilerstein is riding in a New York taxi, singing the famous theme from Elgar’s cello concerto, as you do, into her mobile phone. ‘‘ Da, da-da, da-da, da-dada,’’ the cellist da-das down the line to a listener in far-off Melbourne. The musical reverie is interrupted when Weilerstein pulls up at her apartment.
‘‘ Wait, can you just give me one second?’’ she says. ‘‘ I’m in a taxi and I have to pay.’’
There are sounds of Weilerstein getting out of the cab and of an exchange with the driver. The listener, through all of this, recalls the incident some years ago when Yo-Yo Ma left his 18th-century Venetian cello in the boot of a New York taxi and launched a city-wide search, eventually leading to its safe return. Alisa, you haven’t left the cello in the boot, have you? ‘‘ No!’’ she says with a laugh. ‘‘ I know, it happened to Yo-Yo Ma.’’
Weilerstein, 31, is a stunning young cellist coming to worldwide attention. Ma, for one, has noted the passion and fearlessness in her performances: ‘‘ Those two qualities, in combination with a great musical intelligence, really define her artistry for me,’’ he has said of her playing.
And Weilerstein was paid the ultimate compliment by Daniel Barenboim when he asked her to perform Elgar’s cello concerto with him. The conductor was married to Jacqueline du Pre who, before multiple sclerosis cut short her career, was the most celebrated exponent of the Elgar concerto. ‘‘ Jacqueline du Pre is and always has been my favourite cellist,’’ Weilerstein says. ‘‘ I had her recording of the Elgar, and recordings of other music, before I was 10. It was enormously important to me.
‘‘ Then, when I started to learn the concerto — I was about 12 — I forced myself to put her recording away, because I realised that her interpretation is so special . . . I was going to unconsciously copy her ideas. I really had to start from scratch, put the recordings away, cleanse my brain of everything and then just develop my own performance, which I did.’’
Weilerstein had been introduced to Barenboim some years ago by conductor Asher Fisch ( who next year becomes principal conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra). It was Fisch’s suggestion that she play the Elgar for him.
‘‘ Never in a million years!’’ she recalls telling him. ‘‘ He persuaded me by saying, ‘ You will learn so much from him, and no one knows that piece as intimately as he does.’ ’’
In a studio at Carnegie Hall in 2009, Barenboim played the orchestral part on the piano and he and Weilerstein read through the piece. Then he dropped a bombshell: he was doing a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, it would be televised, and would she play the Elgar with him? ‘‘ Just like that,’’ she says. ‘‘ My jaw was on the floor, completely shocked.’’
There doesn’t seem to have been any doubt in the Weilerstein household that Alisa would have a music career. Her parents, Donald and Vivian, are a violinist and pianist, respectively. Her brother Joshua is a conductor.
Did her parents rear her as a cellist so they could play together as a family piano trio? ‘‘ Many people ask that question, but no,’’ Weilerstein says. ‘‘ My parents were always very cautious about my musical upbringing. They really wanted me to lead the way with that. When I was about four, I said, ‘ Mummy, I want a cello and a cello teacher. She said, ‘ No, you’re too young.’ But I kept asking and they realised very quickly that it was a serious request. So I got my wish.’’
Chamber music was a ‘‘ native language’’ for Alisa, spoken by the Weilersteins as other families would chat around the dinner table. She started playing ‘‘ very simple piano trios’’ with her parents, such as Haydn’s C-major trio and then the Ghost trio of Beethoven.
At 13, she made her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. She studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and at Columbia University in New York, where she earned a degree in Russian history. In recent years she has performed widely in the US and Europe, with conductors including Andrew Davis (now chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony), Gustavo Dudamel, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Australia’s Simone Young.
She is also a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the ‘‘ genius grants’’ for high achievers that come with $500,000. Weilerstein says she has not yet decided how to use the money but is thinking about possible new commissions of cello music.
Next week she begins a brief Australian tour with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne. The conductor is Daniel Harding, and the piece Shostakovich’s first cello concerto. (In a second program, the orchestra and violinist Christian Tetzlaff will perform the Beethoven violin concerto.)
The Shostakovich, along with the Elgar, is one of the great 20th-century concertos for the cello. The piece dates from 1959 and was first performed that year by Mstislav Rostropovich in Leningrad (St Petersburg).
With its terse opening motto and insistent repeated figures, the concerto could not be mistaken for the work of another composer; the outer movements, Weilerstein says, have that ‘‘ extremely sardonic, perpetual motion, motor-march thing going on’’. ‘‘ Shostakovich’s language is very interesting, in that it never speaks directly,’’ she says of the Sovietera composer whose life was made a misery by Stalin and his cronies. ‘‘ There is always double meaning. It’s often very stoic on the surface, but inside you are in agony. That is a very important thing to communicate in his music.’’
Musical codes and satire were part of the composer’s armoury: the four-note motto on the cello is based on his monogram, DSCH, and the final movement quotes a Georgian song that was Stalin’s favourite.
‘‘ There is a tiny little gesture in the wind instruments,’’ Weilerstein says. ‘‘[ Shostakovich] pointed it out to Rostropovich and said, ‘ Do you see it?’ It referred to Stalin’s favourite song . . . He took a fragment of it and made it sound very ridiculous.’’
After Weilerstein’s debut with Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic in 2010, the pair recorded the Elgar concerto last year with the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra. The recording has come out on Decca, along with Elliott Carter’s scintillating cello concerto of 2001 and Max Bruch’s musical prayer Kol Nidrei.
Weilerstein describes Elgar’s 1919 concerto as a personal statement by the composer: a valediction for innocence lost. ‘‘ It was the end of World War I, the dawn of the modern era,’’ she says. ‘‘ It was also the last major work that he wrote, so it really is a requiem for a dream: you have this tremendous sense of personal melancholy and nostalgia. It’s closing the door on an era that will never return, and that’s what’s so heartbreaking.’’
The cellist arrives home; the conversation ends. One last thing: given her wish as a four- year-old to play the cello, did she imagine herself as a jet-setting soloist? ‘‘ I always think I was destined to be a cellist,’’ she says. ‘‘ I was very thrilled to be playing concertos with an orchestra. But I would be a musician if I had to play for pennies on the street.’’
Alisa Weilerstein appears with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Sydney
Opera House, June 11, and Melbourne Recital Centre, June 12. Her CD of Elgar and Carter cello
concertos is on Decca.