Often, chamber ensembles take the name of their leading violinist. That’s true of the Weilerstein Trio, whose violinist is Donald Weilerstein. However, the trio’s pianist is Vivian Weilerstein, and the cellist is Alisa Weilerstein. Donald and Vivian are husband and wife; Alisa is their daughter. So whose name are they using?
In addition to their appearances together, each of the Weilersteins follows an independent professional path. The Weilersteins perform together at the Mount Burke Theater on Saturday, May 17, at the Peddie School in Hightstown. Their program consists of pieces by Robert Schumann and Leos Janacek. The ensemble plays Schumann’s four-movement Piano Trio No. 3 in G minor in its original form, as it is usually heard in concert. The other two works are departures from their conventional readings.
Robert Schumann’s Canons for Pedal Piano Op. 56 is the point of departure for one of the items to be played. Composed in 1845, it consists of six pieces for pedal piano or organ. The pedal piano, which reached the peak of its popularity in the mid 19th century, was equipped with a pedal board similar to that of an organ. The instrument that Schumann used had 29 foot pedals. The Weilersteins play a piano trio transcription by Paul Bazelaire of four of Schumann’s six keyboard pieces.
The Janacek work on the program is a piano trio version of his 1923 String Quartet No. 1, the Kreutzer Sonata, which is based on a Tolstoy story. “I have a passionate love for Janacek’s music,” says Vivian Weilerstein in a telephone interview from Boston, where she is the director of the Professional Piano Trio Training Program at the New England Conservatory (she is also a member of the Juilliard faculty and formerly was a faculty member of the Cleveland Institute of Music.) “I’m sad that he didn’t write much for piano and strings.” Driven by an enterprising spirit, Vivian instigated the creation of a new string trio version of the Janacek string quartet.
“One of my students told me that he had heard a version of the Kreutzer Sonata for piano trio played by the Abegg String Trio, a German ensemble,” she says. “I phoned them and learned that they had a piano trio version of the piece, but were not willing to share it.
“I discussed the situation with Seth Knopp, the pianist of the Peabody Piano Trio. We called in our friend, Stephen Coxe, a composer and musicologist. He did scholarly work on the Janacek quartet and learned that a partial piano trio version of the piece existed as an unpublished manuscript.” The Weilerstein Trio, the Peabody Trio, and New Orleans Friends of Music commissioned Coxe to reconstruct a piano trio version of the piece.
The Weilerstein Trio plans to record the same program that the Peddie School audience will hear on May 17 in June on the Koch label. Weilerstein considers the Peddie performance as, in a sense, a preparation for the recording. She says: “When we record, we try to simulate a live concert experience. We try to play spontaneously, to interact, and to communicate with our audience. In the recording we want to preserve the feeling of playing a concert. We’ll be recording in Jordan Hall in Boston. So we’ll have the ambiance of a concert hall, even though there won’t be any listeners. In some ways it will be a typical recording experience, but, in the background will be the experience of having performed the pieces.”
In 2006 the ensemble recorded the Antonin Dvorak Trios for Koch. The immediacy of the artists is outstanding, as is their combination of passion and transparency.
“We’re a family ensemble,” Weilerstein says. “We’re really honest with each other. We love each other’s playing, and we support each other. There’s a lot of trust and respect. Because we’re a family, we have a natural response to each other musically. We don’t have to discuss as much with each other as with outsiders. Of course we argue; of course, we have our ups and downs.
‘Donald and I have played with cellists other than Alisa in piano trios. It’s a different experience. It’s enriching to have to adjust to different styles. Returning to your own trio feels like coming home. You always learn something when you get out of your own milieu, and then, it’s so nice to come back.”
Donald Weilerstein, 68, was a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet, where he served as first violinist until 1989. The Quartet disbanded in 1995. Its recordings during Weilerstein’s participation harvested seven nominations for Grammy awards.
Donald has been a professor of violin and chamber music at Rochester’s Eastman School and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He is a current faculty member of Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music and of New York’s Juilliard School.
Donald’s wife, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, 56, concertizes with him in the Weilerstein Duo. She has no idea with whom Donald won the Munich International Competition for violin and piano duo in 1968. “I didn’t know him at the time,” she says.
Formed in 1976, the Weilerston Duo celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2006. The Duo’s discography includes the complete works of Ernest Bloch for violin and piano.
In addition to performing with the Weilerstein Trio, which is in residence at the New England Conservatory of Music, Vivian performs publicly not only with her husband but also with her daughter, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, 26. Alicia made her debut recording in 2000 with her mother.
As part of her involvement in the musical activities of the family, Vivian is concerned for its physical fitness. “I brought Pilates into the family, and also gyrokinesis,” she says. Pilates was developed during the First World War by Joseph Pilates to help rehabiliate returning veterans. It focuses on developing, stretching, and strengthening the core postural muscles, or “powerhouse,” that helps support the spine and keep the body balanced. Developed in the 1970s, gyrokinesis incorporates principles from yoga, dance, gymnastics, and tai chi. “Playing an instrument is a very physical thing,” Weilerstein says. “We teach a lot of holistic, whole body approaches to our instruments.”
Born in 1982, daughter Alisa gave her first public performance at age six with her parents at the Roundtop Festival in Texas. She made her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 1995 at age 13, and made her Carnegie Hall debut two years later. While earning a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 2004, where she specialized in Russian history, she crammed into her life studying with Joel Krosnick, cellist of the Juilliard Quartet, and giving concerts as part of the Weilerstein Trio.
The demands on her time decreased temporarily after college graduation and Alisa was temporarily relieved. “My only real obligation was to practice and be where I had to be,” she told David Abrams of the International Cello Society in an online interview. But soon her concert schedule became increasingly busy with solo orchestral performances and chamber music with people other than her parents.
‘Because we all have grown up with chamber music,” Vivian Weilerstein says, “Alisa has no problem making the transition between soloist and chamber music player. We all have very full lives outside of the Trio. That enriches our group. A true musician should do everything. Music is music. You have to think of blending, whether it’s chamber music or playing with orchestra.”
Weilerstein calls scheduling rehearsals for the Trio “a tricky thing. We send E-mail,” she says. “We don’t have huge rehearsals. We’ve been playing together so long, it’s become instinctive. When we rehearse we go for the broad strokes first, and then focus on details.”
The Weilerstein Trio came into existence without being planned. “There was no conscious decision to form the Trio,” Weilerstein says. “It happened gradually. It evolved. When Alisa was five and playing Haydn piano trios with us by ear, we realized that she was amazing. We played publicly, but we didn’t think of ourselves as an ensemble. By the time Alisa was 12 or 13, we thought ‘This really could be a trio.’ It was a natural outgrowth of what went on in the family. The Weilerstein Duo continues, alongside the Trio; one did not replace the other.”
Donald and Vivian Weilerstein have a second child, Josh, 20, a student at the New England Conservatory. “He’s a fantastic violinist, and a young conductor,” his mother says. “My husband and son have played Bartok duos. My son toured North America with the Dudamel youth orchestra; he was the only non-Venezuelan.” A high-profile young conductor, Gustavo Dudamel was appointed director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007 at the age of 26.
When Josh joins the rest of the family, it creates a new Weilerstein ensemble, with Donald allowing Josh to play violin. “My husband is a fantastic violist,” Vivian Weilerstein says. “The four of us will perform together. A piano quartet would be the easiest way to go. But I don’t think we’ll form a structured group with Josh. The Trio, though, is here to stay.”
The Weilerstein Trio, Saturday, May 17, 8 p.m. CAPPS, Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown. Mother, father, and daughter trio-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music, have performed at Lincoln Center, Royal Academy of Music, and Carnegie Hall. $20. 609-490-7550.