On the eve of her Aus­tralian tour, lauded Amer­i­can cel­list Alisa Weil­er­stein talks — and sings — to Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

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.

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