A recital by cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan is intrinsically exciting. The two play with musical and technical pizzazz, exporting their intimate musical relationship to the audience.
On Thursday, November 10, the duo performs in Richardson Auditorium as part of the Princeton University Concerts series. Their program consists of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 2, Samuel Barber’s Op. 6 Cello Sonata, Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, and Frederic Chopin’s Cello Sonata. Remarkably, both cellist and pianist are recipients of Avery Fisher Career Grants. The prestigious $25,000 Fisher grants go to artists who are selected without applying.
The matchmaker for the Weilerstein-Barnatan duo was Pat Winter, who manages both performers. “It was an uninspiring way to meet,” Weilerstein says in a telephone interview from Frankfurt, Germany, where she gave the second of four concerts as artist in residence for the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. “I was looking for a pianist. Pat proposed the match, and it clicked. He has become one of my best friends. We’ll be giving eight concerts together in February in Europe.”
Appearances by Weilerstein have taken on an added aura since her selection in September as a MacArthur fellow. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur awards provide a stipend of $500,000 over a period of five years to be used as recipients wish, with no restrictions. The three criteria for selection are exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances, and the likelihood that the fellowship will boost new creative work. Recipients do not apply for the grants, but are nominated confidentially by an anonymous committee. The fellowships are known popularly as “genius” awards. In an NPR interview after the fellowship was awarded, Weilerstein said that when she got the E-mail from the MacArthur Foundation, she thought it was spam.
The MacArthur Foundation describes the response of those selected as “just what one might imagine — amazement, gratitude, and sometimes incredulity.” Weilerstein says, “I was shocked to receive the MacArthur fellowship. I was thrilled; it’s an incredible honor. It is an opportunity to do something wonderful.” She has not yet decided what to do with the money. Meanwhile, she is following her announced schedule.
Asked about assembling the Princeton program, Weilerstein says, “Inon and I decided together what to play. There are two main themes. All the pieces are ones that we love and that go well together. We wanted variety. We have four time periods and four nationalities. Variety is good for the listener and makes a lot of fun for us. Generally I don’t do all-anybody concerts. I think that variety is more successful musically.”
The conductor for Weilerstein’s October concert in Frankfurt was the Baltimore Symphony’s Marin Alsop, a 2005 MacArthur fellow. “We’ve worked together since I was 18,” Weilerstein says. “The Frankfurt performance was the second time that we worked together in two weeks. Our Baltimore concert came two days after the MacArthur announcement. We joked that it was a million dollar concert.”
Weilerstein’s repertoire includes all the basic cello literature for recital, chamber music, and orchestral soloist. “The repertoire for cello is not as large as the repertoire for violin or piano,” she points out.
From the pieces at her disposal, Weilerstein devises two or three different recital programs to play during a season. With chamber music, and orchestral engagements, in addition, she plays about 100 concerts a year.
A single philosophy for performance, whatever the number of performers, lies behind Weilerstein’s appearances. “I try to find common ground between orchestral, chamber, and recital pieces,” she says. Performing, for her, is a matter of finding intimacy in the music. “The most successful performance is when I feel that everyone is engaged, and everyone feels like an equal. When it’s not just me dictating what’s going on.”
Born into a musical family in 1982 in Rochester, New York, Weilerstein joined her parents for public performances as a piano trio before she was a teenager. “There was no conscious decision to form the trio,” her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, says. Her father is violinist Donald Weilerstein, a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet. The Weilerstein Trio is in residence at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. The ensemble has performed at the Peddie School in Hightstown (U.S. 1, May 14, 2008).
Weilerstein’s brother, Joshua, six years her junior, is a violinist and conductor. The siblings have performed together twice, once in Sweden and once in Venezuela. They are scheduled to play Johannes Brahms’ double concerto together in Naples during the 2012-’13 season.
By age four Alisa persuaded her parents to let her study cello. She performed her first public concert six months later. “I don’t remember a moment in my life when I questioned that I was going to be a cellist,” she says.
She debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13 and made her Carnegie Hall orchestral debut at 15.
When she was nine Weilerstein was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. “I used to be quite private about the condition professionally,” she told Jessica Duchen of Britain’s “Jewish Chronicle,” “but now I really want to use the fact that I travel and am in public quite a lot to speak to families about it. Often newly diagnosed children are frightened, the families don’t know what the future holds, and I want to put across that it’s completely possible, with the treatments we have now, to live a perfectly normal life.”
Pursuing a normal education, Weilerstein selected college, rather than conservatory. Leery of an overly musical existence, she enrolled in Columbia University as an undergraduate, taking a full load of courses, and giving concerts as well. She played in public 42 times during her freshman year and told Beth Satkin in “Columbia College Today” that she “want[ed] to read and [didn’t] want to be stuck in a practice room for four years.”
Weilerstein graduated from Columbia in 2004, on schedule for earning a bachelor’s degree when one is born in 1982. “It was a very personal choice,” she says. “I was already playing a lot of concerts and wanted a new experience, so I chose not to major in music. It was very important to me to have had the experience of making friends and having contacts outside of music. I was enamored with Russian music and literature. My degree is in Russian history.”
The cellist seeks out new experiences. She took her Russian history degree and her cello to Venezuela in order to participate in the dazzlingly successful El Sistema program of music education. Originally designed as an anti-poverty educational initiative for a country where 60 percent of the population is below the poverty line, the government-sponsored El Sistema program has produced the much-admired Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
“I go every few months to teach and play, because I love it,” Weilerstein says. “That’s the personal reason. It’s an incredible thing to see the power of music. El Sistema has saved the lives of 400,000 children and their families. It’s a special thing to see an orchestra where every player plays as if their life depended on it.
“It’s incredible to see kids so hungry for information, hanging on to and experimenting with every idea. I worked with a 13-year-old boy in Venezuela. Usually, when you work with a student there is nothing more to do after an hour and a half. But we spent three hours without noticing that time went by. It was very moving and a great privilege.”
A poignant career milestone for Weilerstein took place in 2010, when Daniel Barenboim invited her to play Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with him and the Berlin Philharmonic. The piece was a signature work for Barenboim’s late wife, Jacqueline du Pre, an idol to Weilerstein. For many years after du Pre’s death, Barenboim chose to avoid the work. Weilerstein’s playing helped him make the composition a part of his life again.
For her debut as a Decca Classics artist, Weilerstein will record the Elgar concerto with Barenboim and the Berlin Staatskapelle. The release is set for April, 2012.
Weilerstein lays claim to no technical secrets about playing cello. “We’re all built differently and have our own relationship to the cello,” she says. She suggests that the relationship is individual and personal. “It’s a highly physical instrument. We embrace it,” she explains.
“It takes a lot of strength [to play cello]. Each cellist must find their own way to manage the instrument. It’s a matter of finding one’s energy center and using it in the most efficient way. It’s like yoga.” Weilerstein practices Hatha yoga on her own. “I wish I could do it daily,” she says.
Weilerstein is a good candidate for tucking yet another activity into her busy schedule. She learned how to use her time efficiently while she juggled a concert career with full-time college attendance. Indeed, she is skeptical of being labeled a genius. “Obviously, there is natural talent,” she told Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. “But you accomplish things only by working extremely hard. The [MacArthur] award recognizes that our work isn’t done. I’m a perpetual student.”
Concert Classics Series, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, November 10, 8 p.m. Alisa Weilerstein on cello and Inon Barnatan on piano present a program of works by Beethoven, Barber, Stravinsky, and Chopin. Pre-concert lecture presented by Scott Burnham at 7 p.m. $20 to $40. 609-258-9220 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org.