An Interview With Alisa Weilerstein

Georgia Rowe on July 28, 2009
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein began her career at age 4 when her grandmother presented her with a homemade instrument assembled from cereal boxes. The young musician gave her first public concert six months later, albeit on a more traditional cello. Since then, Weilerstein — the daughter of violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein — has been widely acclaimed as one of the leading interpreters of her generation, in a variety of repertoire.

Now 27, the New York–based musician divides her time between orchestral concerts, recitals, and chamber music performances. Last month, she made her first Chicago Symphony appearance as soloist in Dvořák’s Cello Concerto; as part of the 2009-2010 season, she’ll make her Berlin Philharmonic debut playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto. On Aug. 7 in Santa Cruz, she’ll play Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul to open the Cabrillo Music Festival with conductor Marin Alsop. Weilerstein is well-acquainted with the work; she gave the premiere of the composer’s revised version at New York’s Mostly Mozart festival in 2007, and has played it many times since then. She was in New York last week when I spoke to her by phone. 

Talk a little about your history with Osvaldo Golijov’s Azul.

I’ve played it many times. The premiere of this version, which is now the definitive version, was at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2007. The last time I played it was with the Cleveland Orchestra. I’ve also played it with the New World Symphony, in Colorado and in Lucerne, and others.

Golijov revised it extensively from the original version. How is it different now?

He wrote seven minutes of music that are entirely different for the first movement. In the original version, he was after a very wistful, ethereal character. The world premiere [in 2006] was with Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and Osvaldo was imagining people lying on the lawn, looking at the stars, having sort of a floating feeling. One of the reasons he wanted to revise it is he felt he had gotten it to this blissful place without having earned it. So this version is more of a journey. He was also inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem “The Heights of Macchu Picchu.” In the first poem, he imagines a man standing on top of a mountain, searching. He then plunges into the center of the earth, looking for this unknowable thing, and comes out again. So you hear this searching, very Romantic music. The other unusual thing is that it’s not really a cello concerto. It’s more a concerto for cello, hyper-accordion, and two percussion players. There’s a lot of wonderful interaction between the four of us. It culminates in this huge cadenza which is the third movement,  “Transit.” It’s significantly expanded from the original version, and the character totally changed to something very ecstatic. It’s cosmic — you hear shooting stars and that kind of thing.

Golijov originally conceived the score as an expansion of his own Tenebrae, a 2002 work inspired by Couperin. It covered a lot of ground, from Baroque to contemporary.

Yes, although the Baroque aspect was a little more prevalent in the original version. It was more Couperin-inspired, more Baroque-inspired. There’s still a tribute to Vivaldi in the second movement, “Silencio.” But he’s really expanded on it so much. It seems that he took it in a totally different direction. The first movement has a very searching quality. In fact when I first played for him, he said, “I want you to sound unsure of yourself.” The movement gradually gains emotional momentum and gets extremely Romantic, almost urgent at the end, and rather abruptly cuts to the second movement, “Silencio.” I hear nature in it; the cellos are floating on top of a forest. The percussion players make these incredible effects — frogs and birds, sounds unlike anything you can imagine in a classical music concert. This is what evolves into the Vivaldi-esque moments, which are also a bit frenzied, and leads into the “Transit” movement, the cadenza, which starts in a very meandering, timeless line for cello, and into the quartet, by which time the audience should be dancing in their seats. In the last movement, we’ve now reached that place of bliss. It’s absolutely gorgeous, ecstatic music. 

What was your role in the revision process?

I love working with Osvaldo. He’s one of my favorite musicians, and one thing that’s incredible about him is that he always involves the performer in his process. It was a very collaborative effort for all of us. I went to Banff where he was in residence about three weeks before the New York premiere, knowing he was going to revise it but not quite knowing what he wanted to do. I was there for two days, we bounced ideas off each other, and it came together very quickly. However, three weeks before the premiere, I had no idea what was going on. It was only about three days before the concert that I really knew what I was going to play! But I have to say it was the most exhilarating experience of my life. It was incredible to see the genesis of the piece: terrifying and fantastic at the same time.

In general, how do you like working with living composers? Do you find it inspiring, difficult, challenging?

Inspiring and challenging, I would say. With Osvaldo, I feel very lucky because we think in a similar way. We have a very open and direct communication. It’s just a dream to work with him. Most of the relationships I have with other composers are very good, too, although everyone is totally different. For example, I played with Lera Auerbach, a wonderful Russian composer. She’s also a fantastic pianist and her music is in, of course, a completely different style than Osvaldo’s. It was a little nerve-wracking to learn her music because I knew I was going to play it with her, two or three full recitals of her music, which is very intense and quite difficult, and we couldn’t get together until about three days before the performance. It was this huge program, and I was a little bit in the dark. But it wound up being an incredibly happy and positive experience, and I work with her all the time now. We’ll be playing a recital together in San Francisco next year.

You divide your time between orchestral concerts, recitals, and chamber music. Are you pleased with the balance?

It’s always in flux. This year, I played a lot of concerti and not as many recitals. Next year, I’ll be playing more recitals. I don’t mind it, actually, as long as there are no drastic changes. It’s always a little bit of up and down. I like doing all three.

You also continue to work with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, which is wonderful. Why is that important to you?

I’ve had juvenile diabetes since I was 9. That’s over 17 years. I decided to come out publicly about it — I was always very open about it with friends who I really trusted, but in the professional world I was always wary about it. There’s still, unfortunately, several stigmas attached to diabetes and its complications. I decided to come out and talk about it, because I think I’ve proven that I can live a very healthy and active life with this. And I’m lucky to be in a position where I can reach a lot of people, kids and families who are struggling with it. Of course the JDRF message is that insulin is not a cure; we need to get money for research to find a cure. But at the same time, that it’s possible to fulfill any dream. So it’s been a real privilege to talk to some of these kids, and I recently did a Children’s Congress in Washington, D.C. Every two years the JDRF convenes there. I was with 150 kids — I’ve never been surrounded by so many Type 1 diabetics! — ages 4 to 17 from all 50 states, who came to Washington to testify before a Senate committee. I spoke on a role-model panel with a couple of other advocates; at the end, the kids go to their respective Senators to lobby for more money for research. Having that direct contact with them was very touching. It was a great privilege to do it, and a very intense, personal experience for me.

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