For nearly all of her career, Alisa Weilerstein has been called an “up-and-comer” or “rising star,” but the 32-year-old cellist has fully established herself as a mature, top-flight musical force.
The latest evidence came in the May issue of BBC Music Magazine. Her album featuring the cello concertos of Edward Elgar and Elliott Carter was named recording of the year, and she was featured for the first time on the periodical’s cover.
Even before that achievement, Weilerstein, a recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2011, had already become a regular collaborator with some of the world’s top conductors and orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “It’s a real joy and privilege to work with great artists,” she said. “We can discuss ideas, and I can learn from them. It makes my own work better, and it also gives me a certain freedom in terms of the projects I take on and what I might be able to postpone. That’s the really nice thing about being in a better place, career-wise.”
Chicago Symphony audiences will get their latest chance to hear her May 29-30, when she joins guest conductor Jaap van Zweden as soloist in Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto in E Minor, Op. 125. The infrequently heard work is a 1950s revision of an earlier concerto by the Russian composer. “If it were entirely up to me,” Weilerstein said, “I’d play it every week, because I love it that much. It’s a difficult piece to convince orchestras to program. It’s long. It’s not a blockbuster piece the way that the Dvorak Concerto is, although I think it should be.
“I think this is one of Prokofiev’s great masterpieces. I really do. It’s kind of epic in scope. It’s a lot of quotes from Romeo and Juliet. For me, it’s kind of a series of pictures and images and colors. It’s almost a fantasia-like piece.”
Much better known is Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Op. 85, his last major creation. The ruminative, elegiac work was composed in 1919 not long after World War I, which greatly affected the composer, who could hear the artillery blasts from across the English Channel in his coastal Sussex cottage.
The once-neglected concerto was popularized in the 1960s by the beloved cellist Jacqueline du Pre, whose life and career ended prematurely because of multiple sclerosis. “She was always my favorite cellist,” Weilerstein said, “and I probably listened to her recording every day from the time I was 4 until I was 11. So, it’s in my bones, as it were.”
But realizing she needed to form her own interpretation of the piece, Weilerstein set aside the recording and learned the work when she was 12, giving her first public performance four years later. In 2009, a musical friend suggested she play the concerto privately for conductor Daniel Barenboim, CSO music director from 1991 t0 2006.
Weilerstein was reluctant to do so, both because of Barenboim’s stature and because he was famously du Pre’s husband, and the two had recorded the concerto together. But in the end, she went through with the session, playing the entire concerto with Barenboim accompanying her on piano. As she was packing her cello, he suggested the two perform the work the following year with the Berlin Philharmonic, including a concert in Oxford, England, that was televised live internationally and later released on DVD.
“He was so much about the music,” Weilerstein said, “and he really mentored me for a little while not only on the Elgar but also the Dvorak Concerto [and] Schumann. He was so generous with his time, and he gave me so many incredible ideas to work with that you kind of forget everything else. So it became a really, really wonderful process.”
That collaboration led to the 2013 recording of the contrasting Elgar and Carter concertos, a coupling suggested by Barenboim. “At first it kind of comes out of left field,” Weilerstein said, “but if you think about it, it’s kind of the ideal pairing. They’re completely opposite worlds.” It was her first album on the Decca label, with which she signed an exclusive contract in 2010.
Earlier this year, she released a recording of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with Jirí Belohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic, and the next album on the way is a collection of 20th century solo cello pieces by such varied composers as Benjamin Britten, Osvaldo Golijov, Zoltan Kodály and György Ligeti. “Just me, myself and I,” she said.
Throughout her career, she has intermingled cello classics with new works for the instrument. She presented the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes of Violincello and Piano at the 2008 Caramoor Music Festival, and the cellist has worked extensively with Golijov and Joseph Hallman. In 2015, she is set to debut a cello concerto by German composer Matthias Pintscher that was co-commissioned by a consortium of the Boston Symphony, Danish National Orchestra and WDR Symphony Orchestra Cologne. The CSO invited her soon after to perform the world premiere of a new concerto it has commissioned from French composer Pascal Dusapin.
In general, cellists have to work harder to secure orchestral bookings, because the repertoire is more extensive for the violin and piano, which tend to dominate the spotlight. Because of her success, however, Weilerstein is something of an exception. “I feel very lucky,” she said, “because with many wonderful orchestras, I am going every year or every year and a half. I’ve had residencies with wonderful orchestras, too, and, at the moment, I have more work than I know what to do with.”
Even though the cellist has made it to the top of her profession, she has no plans to change her approach or let up in any way. “My only goal is to keep growing,” she said. “I was also always raised to really listen to those musicians, artists and people that I trust and to filter out the rest in a way. I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself to always be a better artist, but nothing is really new in that regard. I’ve always put a lot of pressure on myself.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
NOTE: After the May 30 concert, Alisa Weilerstein will sign CDs in the Grainger Ballroom.