Reaching Switzerland, via the L.A. Phil
In four years, Joshua Weilerstein rose from Dudamel fellow to in-demand maestro.
NEW YORK — Four years ago, Joshua Weilerstein came to Los Angeles as a 23-year-old graduate student to be one of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Dudamel fellows — a highly sought apprenticeship for young conductors.
This week Weilerstein returns to L.A. as a maestro in his own right after a stint as assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic and, in November, winning the job of artistic director for the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne in Switzerland.
Speaking at a cafe near his old place of work, Lincoln Center, Weilerstein exudes a relaxed, no-big-deal manner for someone who just taught a class at Juilliard (stepping in for Itzhak Perlman) and is about to dash off to Texas later in the day to make his debut with the Dallas Symphony — to say nothing of being handed the keys to a Swiss orchestra with more than 70 years of history and a $10-million budget.
As earning the Lausanne post suggests, Weilerstein is much in demand as a conductor. After leading the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl last year, Times critic Mark Swed wrote that Weilerstein “may not yet have bestselling recordings on the market, but he is one of the most promising podium presences of his generation.”
On Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at UCLA’s Royce Hall, Weilerstein leads the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in a program that includes Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony and Saint-Saëns’ cello concerto featuring soloist Narek Hakhnazaryan.
“The Mozart is something I’ve done a lot — not to mention it’s one of the greatest pieces ever written. I like doing it on debuts,” he says, explaining how the LACO program was selected. Hakhnazaryan suggested the Saint-Saëns.
“My attitude is the soloist is the boss,” Weilerstein says. “The conductor gets the other part of the concert.”
His family is a musical dynasty that includes his father, Donald Weilerstein, a violinist and founder of the Cleveland Quartet, and his mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a noted chamber musician and faculty member at New England Conservatory. Alisa Weilerstein, Joshua’s sister, is a MacArthur grant winner and cellist of international fame with a recording contract at Decca.
“It’s been fun to watch his progress. I knew him from the time he was 6 or 7 years old,” says Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic music director who hired Weilerstein. “My father and Josh’s father were roommates and close friends at Juilliard … but when I knew Josh, he was this basketball obsessed, brilliant little kid.”
Weilerstein eventually dropped basketball and picked up a violin. He went on tour with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (the ensemble’s first non Venezuelan guest member), where he got to know L.A. Phil music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel. But at conservatory he took up the baton as well, and in 2009 he won first prize and the audience prize at the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen.
“You have to figure out right away what the orchestra needs from you,” Weilerstein says about conducting. “I have strong ideas, but I’m not going to be a dictator about them. I don’t feel that’s a good way to work. I’m very interested in the psychology of orchestras.”
Weilerstein says his time as a violinist in orchestras helps him be attuned to musicians’ needs.
“I think that musicians grow up and are trained, all the way through conservatory education, to be independent, to play with your own personal sound,” he says. “And then you’re suddenly in the middle of the second violin section. It’s a wonderful thing, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great job, but I think it’s easy to suddenly lose all sense that you have a say in things.”
One of his mentors and conservatory tutors is conductor Hugh Wolff, who said he saw Weilerstein as a promising talent before his first lesson.
“That’s a fairly rare thing,” Wolff says. “He has a physical command that you really can’t teach.” says Wolff, who tutored Weilerstein at the conservatory. “And what Josh has that’s rare at his age is the ability to run an efficient, collegial and musical rehearsal. He has a very good sense of how to express ideas in a positive way and knows how to get musicians to go along with him.”
In addition to changing people’s perspective about the role of the conductor, Weilerstein wants to push boundaries in repertory. On the LACO program is a work by 35-year-old composer Joseph Hallman. The moody, 17-minute piece is titled “imagined landscapes: six lovecraftian elsewheres,” and it’s inspired by the macabre writings of author H.P. Lovecraft.
“I’m really grateful to the orchestra for agreeing to do it,” Weilerstein says. “He’s not a known composer, and he needs more exposure. I think the audience will enjoy it.”
Ultimately Weilerstein feels his job as a leader of an orchestra is to communicate the power of music. “I think people are looking for experiences,” he says. “I feel like what I would love to do is broaden the audience of classical music, and not just Mozart and Beethoven.”
Weilerstein of Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne has two L.A. shows.