Alisa Weilerstein is flying high. At 34, the internationally renowned cellist continues to one enjoy success after another. In 2011, Weilerstein received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” in part for her strong advocacy of new music. Three years later, she was featured on the cover of BBC Music Magazine, when her album of cello concertos by Edward Elgar and Elliott Carter was named the publication’s recording of the year. Later that same year, she released her first solo album, titled, appropriately enough, “Solo.”
In 2015-2016, Weilerstein will debut two concertos written for her. She joins guest conductor Cristian Măcelaru and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in concerts May 26-31 featuring the world premiere of Outscape for cello and orchestra by Pascal Dusapin. (Also on the program, Holst’s The Planets and Ibert’s Bacchanale.) The French composer’s recent works, according to the New York Times, “evoke both the avant-garde structures of his idol Edgard Varèse and the emotional immediacy of film music.” Outscape is Dusapin’s second work in a cycle about nature. “The more I compose this work, the more the idea of a desert of snow is present,” Dusapin said in the 2014 Times article when he was still at work on the piece. “It’s very calm for me — the music is not — but this inspires me.” Weilerstein will later present the concerto’s first European performances with the Stuttgart and Paris Opera orchestras.
Ahead of her Chicago appearance, the cellist spoke to Sounds and Stories from her Berlin home about her recent acquisition of a 1730 cello by Italian luthier Domenico Montagnana, the state of the classical music world and Dusapin’s new concerto.
What appeals to you about the cello vs. other instruments? Is it the sound of the instrument or something more?
Definitely something more. When I first picked it as my instrument to play when I was 4, I couldn’t have told you why I picked it, but I was not interested in playing any other instrument. So there was an instinctive connection that I’ve always had to it. I think it’s the chameleon of all instruments, of all stringed instruments for sure. It has the widest range, practically speaking, and I also think the widest emotional range. It can really be anything and is capable of most directly expressing the music. So in a nutshell, that’s why I’m very happy with my choice.
You recently acquired a different cello. What instrument did you purchase and what attracted you to it?
It’s funny that you ask now, because I have finally just purchased it. I co-own it with a very generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous. This is a Montagnana from 1730. As you probably know, I was playing on a William Forster until about 1½ years ago. I came across this Montagnana in 2014, actually. It was a kind of instantaneous connection. At least as far as I knew I was perfectly happy with my instrument until I played about two notes on this instrument, and I actually burst into tears, because I realized how much wider the possibilities were with this instrument in terms of expression and even ease of playing. It’s not in its original condition. It was cut down and then enlarged, which means that it is slightly smaller than many Montagnanas are. It is a standard size, of course, but many Montagnanas are on the big size, which can make them kind of clumsy for travel, and they are little be more temperamental. The first concert I played on this, and this was a really big test, was in New Zealand. So it had to go through about 30 hours of flying and a complete climate change and everything, and it held up beautifully, as if it had not done anything at all. In terms of quality and projection and dimension, it’s got everything, and for a soloist who travels as much as I do, practically speaking, you couldn’t ask for anything better.
How has this new cello affected your playing?
It’s opened so many possibilities that I didn’t even know were there in terms of colors that I can produce now. I was always searching for colors, it didn’t matter what instrument I had. But it’s like you’re walking through a corridor, and you think you know what’s going on, and then you open a door, and you see a whole different world of possibilities. That’s kind of how it feels.
What keeps you going as a musician? What gives you the desire and enthusiasm to keep touring and putting up with the rigors of travel?
I love music. It’s a very simple answer, really. I love the act of communicating, of sharing. It’s kind of an addictive thing for me, in a very, I’d like to say, healthy sense. The best way I can describe my job or occupation is communicating what is inexpressible in words. And if I’m doing my job right, then hopefully, I’m doing that in a good way. That’s keep me going very strongly.
What is your favorite concert hall in the world?
I have a few that I love very much. The Philharmonie here in Berlin, of course, is spectacular. The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, both the big hall and the recital hall, I find very special. What else? At the risk of sounding like I’m pandering, but I’m really not: I’ve always really liked playing in Orchestra Hall in Chicago. Of course, it’s a very large large hall, but it’s always felt very intimate to me. I like how close I feel to the audience. Sometimes the closer I am to the audience, it heightens the feeling on the stage, the feeling of communicating and sharing. I tend to prefer places where I can feel the presence of people listening.
Who are some of your favorite cellists from the past or present?
The people I grew up listening to were Jacqueline du Pré, [Mstislav] Rostropovich, [Pablo] Casals, [Gregor] Piatigorsky and Yo-Yo Ma. Those were the five that I really had on a big pedestal in no particular order when I was kid. Those were probably my biggest influences, I’d say.
With what musician from the past would you most like to collaborate?
Beethoven. I would just love to pick his brain.
What draws you to him instead of someone else?
Of course, the genius, that’s very obvious. And by all accounts, what a difficult human being he was. I would somehow want to get to know this tortured aspect of his personality. This makes me very curious, actually.
What most excites you about today’s classical music world?
I would say maybe the accessibility and also the success of [educational] programs like El Sistema cropping up all over the world and really showing definitively how much of a difference classical music can make in all aspects of life. Whether a child decides to become a musician as an adult or not, you can see in a very concrete way how deep an impact it has on a child’s life and the course of a child’s life, and that’s something that excites me quite a lot. The other thing, and this leads to what I’m going to be doing with the Chicago Symphony, is that there are so many acceptable styles to write in now for composers, whereas that was not the case 40 years ago. You had to write in a certain way to be taken seriously. It’s very exciting that people are much more open now to different ways of doing things and different ways of making a career and expressing one’s self. In that sense, I feel quite positive about the direction things are taking.
What would you like to change about today’s classical music world?
Oh, well, lots of things. There’s always the other side of the coin. Of course, there is never enough money or never the proper messaging or marketing for new repertoire, and I think a lot of orchestras are fearful of more adventurous programming. You see the same people coming to orchestras year after year, the same composers being played. Of course, this is great music. The Brahms symphonies are some of my favorite repertoire in the world. But if you don’t combine it with something that is unfamiliar to subscribers, then we risk becoming a kind of archives, which we should not be. I believe classical music is a very vibrant and very much alive art form, but in some areas we run a risk of becoming seen as something only about dead white males and only for an audience 65 and up, and that’s scary, of course.
What excited you about the possibility of a cello concerto by Pascal Dusapin?
I listened to several of his other works and was immediately taken by his unique musical language and orchestration. I was thrilled when I heard that he might write something for me.
Could you describe the piece, especially its musical language? How do you see it relating with nature?
The piece has a very interesting combination of yearning lyricism and urgent drive. One could almost describe it as neo-romantic in that it is emotionally very open, and yet its orchestration and language is absolutely of today. There is an almost constant, very intricate rhythmic interplay between the orchestra and soloist that gives the piece a nervous energy, and it makes for some incredibly compelling writing.
What technical and interpretative challenges does the concerto present to the performer?
Pascal clearly knows the cello very well. The solo part is technically demanding but lies beautifully in the hands. The ensemble between the solo part and orchestra as well as the layers of instrumentation also present some fun challenges.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.
TOP: Alisa Weilerstein will perform the world premieres of two cello concertos this year, including Pascal Dusapin’s Outscape with the CSO. | Photo: Harald Hoffmann/Decca