Cellist Alisa Weilerstein calls Spoleto Festival her soul food
When you grow up in a certain context, your experiences color your view of the world.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein grew up listening to her parents practicing their instruments for hours at a time. The house was filled with classical music.
Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, was a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet, playing in the group from 1969 to 1995. Her mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, is the pianist-third of the Weilerstein Trio, which also includes Alisa and her father. Alisa’s brother is the violinist and conductor Joshua Weilerstein.
“I listened to Mom play the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier,’ ” she said.
The counterpoint would wind and weave for three hours, then she would stop, and little Alisa would throw a temper tantrum.
“I thought all mothers practiced Well-Tempered, all fathers practiced violin,” she said. “Others would say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s so cool.’ ”
Thus they paved the way toward a life of music-making.
“I’m grateful to them for creating an environment where we just thought it was normal,” Weilerstein said.
At 30, she has become a sought-after soloist and chamber music player around the world. In April, she performed and recorded the Elgar Cello Concerto with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. She will soon make her debut with the London Philharmonic.
She has won many accolades, including a 2011 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, known as a “genius grant,” which comes with a $500,000 no-strings-attached award recognizing the recipient’s “originality, creativity, self-direction and capacity to contribute importantly to society through your work.”
Weilerstein was in the streets of Jerusalem when she received a couple of garbled messages in her voicemail. She thought it was vocal spam, but eventually returned the call, suspicious, only to discover “a very pleasant voice at the other end of the phone.”
“Do you know what a McArthur Award is?” the voice asked.
She did, vaguely. Her friend singer Dawn Upshaw had won one.
“One other person you know very well is about to receive it,” the voice went on.
It took a while to sink in.
“I was more shocked than anything else,” Weilerstein said.
She approaches everything she performs with passion and determination, listening hard to other musicians and playing all music, no matter how it’s scored, as if it were chamber music, she said.
Though she has a particular affinity for Russian music, she promotes new music “every chance I get.”
“Generally, the repertoire (for cello) is so small I can’t afford to dismiss any of it,” she said.
Thankfully, what music there is for cello tends to be great.
“Any cellist in a position to do so is really obligated to promote the new music of his time,” she said.
Besides, it’s an interesting moment for new music, Weilerstein said. Composers are free from the shackles of 20th century musical “movements” and trends, free to explore a variety of approaches. Some embrace tonality, others electronic music. It’s a wild time to play music.
Nowadays, Weilerstein commands a brighter spotlight and her schedule fills up fast, yet she keeps returning to the Spoleto Festival. Her first visit to Charleston was in 2003, when she was 21. Nine years later, she still makes sure she gets a chance to play with her friends in the Dock Street Theatre.
“I kind of look at it as my soul food,” she said.