I’m starting to realize I do more interviews with cellists than any other discipline of musician! Anyway…
Alisa Weilerstein! Yes, the one that is known for her brilliance in concert, is part of that great family band The Weilerstein Trio (which Alisa tells me is still very much together and plays a few times a year), won accolades around the world and became a MacArthur Fellow last year is here to talk to The Glass. Mind you, I was frazzled and hadn’t even showered for the day yet when she buzzed me (If you are reading this Alisa, I do shower regularly), but, when Alisa Weilerstein calls, you must answer. And we proceeded to get this in 20 minutes! It’s got to be a record of some sort!
CM: Can you please talk about the Barber Cello Concerto?
AW: It was written for Raya Garbousova, who is one of the great cellists of the 20th century, also the grandmother of Jonathan Biss, who is a good friend of mine and a wonderful pianist, and the mother of Paul Biss, so this is a huge musical dynasty, and actually, Jonathan and I were joking because, of course, I also come from musical parents, but a mutual friend of ours said “Wow, that makes his blood even purer than yours, so, does that make him like a Slytherin or something?”.
CM: [both laughing] Wow!
AW: Yeah, it was very funny! We were just being silly, but in any case, it’s a wartime piece. It was written in 1944, so the language is much harsher than it is in the Violin Concerto or the Adagio for Strings, or some of the better-known works of Barber. You have this kind of angry quality, but also meshed with a more innocent and romantic quality that people know Barber for as well, and the last movement in particular is really kind of fun and jazzy, and extremely virtuosic, it’s very demanding for the cellist.
CM: You recently signed with Decca Classics, and the first release is going to be of the Elgar and Elliot Carter concertos. Can you talk about your experience with these pieces?
AW: The Carter’s actually a new piece for me, but the Elgar recording is going to happen in about 3 weeks. We’ve been talking about it for a long time, and so it’s finally happening. As you may know, I’ve already done it with Daniel Barenboim and the Berlin Philharmonic 2 years ago (It was released on DVD). I developed a very strong musical relationship with Daniel Barenboim, which I’m incredibly grateful for, and everyone’s very excited for it to continue.
Elgar: Cello Concerto (excerpt; II: Lento-Allegro; Berlin Philharmonie, 4/27/10)
CM: Can you tell the story about your grandmother making you a cello out of a Rice Krispy box? 😉
AW: As you know, both my parents are musicians, and I was brought up listening to them practice, and particularly, when I was younger, my father was still in the Cleveland Quartet, and he was touring quite a bit. There was one time when they were both away, which was rare, but with impeccable timing, I got chicken pox right before my mom left the house, and my grandmother was coming to take care of me, in any case. She felt extra sorry for me, so she made me a string quartet of instruments out of cereal boxes–2 violins, viola and a cello, and she drew the f-holes. She was an incredibly creative person, and one of those mutli-talented people that could do anything. She did the fingerboard, the bow was a chopstick, the end pin was a big toothbrush. That was the instrument that I gravitated towards, and I’m not sure why I shunned the others. Then when my parents returned to the house, I really wanted to participate in the rehearsals that they had with their colleagues, so they got a little stool for me, and I would bang away at this thing trying to make a sound. I have sort of a snapshot memory of them getting to a really climactic point, and I was scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing, but then got really frustrated because I wasn’t actually contributing any sound, so, I asked my parents for a real cello when I was four.
CM: When you play music by Bach, or Kodaly, or any living composer, what’s your ethic for preparation?
AW: For me, even though those are wildly different areas that you are talking about, the initial process is sort of the same. The score is the bible, in a way, then you listen to recordings, then I actually try to put the recordings away very early on in the process because I try to develop my own interpretation of what’s on the page. And there’s always the balance of how much of the performer’s own voice should be contributed to what’s actually on the page–some composers are much more specific than others. With Bach, it’s a special challenge, because there’s no dynamics written, very rarely a tempo marking or anything of that sort. You have to have a very, very strong harmonic sense, and rhythmic sense to really make sense out of music. As time went on, composers got much more specific. With Kodaly, as you mentioned, almost every note has a marking on it, and that poses its own challenge, because you have to learn which details to highlight, and which phases that you have to go through to make the piece hang together, and especially with his solo sonata, that’s probably the biggest challenge, because it’s very, very bloated, and it’s wonderful music, but it’s absolutely huge, and to give it a sense of cohesion is a special challenge.
Kodaly: Sonata for Solo Cello (1st movement; live in 2008)
CM: Which composer would you say speaks most directly to you? Or do they all have their own thing that’s special?
AW: It’s like if a parent were to choose a favorite child! [laughs]
CM: I get it! [laughs] There are people that have a favorite composer, though!
AW: Not me!
CM: I didn’t think so!
Can you talk about Lera Auerbach? She’s worked with you, and she’s a wonderful composer as well as pianist, and does a bunch of other things like writing poetry, sculpting, painting, etc.
AW: We’re about to play together again for the first time in a while on Wednesday the 14th in San Francisco. I’ve been working with her since 2008, and she has a fantastic cello repertoire. And she’s also a composer that has extremely strong ideas of how she wants her music to sound, and she’s a very intense person in the best way, and passionate about what she’s doing. She always plays as if it’s a life or death experience. That’s how her music sounds as well, it’s dreamy, it’s very immediate, it’s extremely rewarding to play. I enjoy working with her a lot!
CM: Of course she’s got the 24 Preludes for Cello and Piano, and she has the same thing for violin and piano, and piano solo…
AW: She has a thing about preludes! [laughs]
CM: Do you have any plans to maybe do something outside of classical like a folk project with somebody, or play with a rock band?
AW: No, there are no immediate plans to do that, but, I have a small outlet with some non-classical music. I work with Osvaldo Golijov, and I played his cello concerto Azul, which is not really a cello concerto, it’s for cello, hyperaccordion, and two world-percussion instruments. The four of us–myself with these fantastic musicians, Michael Ward-Bergman, Jamey Haddad and Cyro Baptista, we’ve actually done our own shows as well with a lot of Brazilian music and some jazz and some other folk music. We don’t do it so often, but often enough that we’ve been about taking that show on the road. It’s kind of a side project at the moment, but they are geniuses of music, and I’m learning so much from them, so this is something that I might pursue at some point, but at the moment I’m pretty focused on what I’m doing in the mainstream.
CM: If Coldplay called you and they wanted you to play on their record, would you be able to fit that into your schedule?
AW: I don’t think that’ll be a problem, but I don’t think they would call me!
CM: That’s their loss if they don’t call you! [both laugh]
Bach: Cello Suite #3 in C Major (I: Prelude; WQXR Cafe Concert, 4/18/11)
Alisa is performing the Barber Concerto with David Zinman conducting the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday, March 13th at 7:30 PM at Lincoln Center.
Click here to buy tickets
Alisa Weilerstein’s Facebook fan page
Oddly enough, she does not have a regular website, so, this is it for now.