Alisa Weilerstein is delighted about the opportunities presented by her residency in Frankfurt.
When the American cellist Alisa Weilerstein was fourteen years old, she was driving in the car with her father Donald, a violinist, when a particular piece of music came on the radio. “I’d never heard it before but I immediately said, ‘get me that score tomorrow, I have to learn it!’” she recalls, as we meet for sushi when she is briefly back in her home city of New York. The piece in question was Prokofiev’s “extraordinary” Sinfonia Concertante. As bratty teenage-girl requests go, I suggest, her father could have fared much worse. She lets out an enormous, infectious gurgle of a laugh. “Yeah, well I was a geek.”
The delightful (and distinctly un-geeky) Weilerstein, who turns 30 this year, has recently been performing that same Prokofiev as part of her ongoing residency with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Paavo Järvi. She describes the collaboration as a “a lot of fun. I’ve had a musical relationship with Paavo for the past five or six years, since he was at Cincinnati. He’s an extraordinary musician. Knowing it was the chance to work with him as well as conductors like Marin Alsop was something I was really excited about.” The residency also afforded a unique opportunity for an itinerant soloist like Weilerstein. “I jumped at the chance to do very widely ranging repertoire with one fantastic orchestra over a concentrated period in a great city,” she explains. “That’s something I never get to do; normally I’m always bouncing from orchestra to orchestra.”
One of the additional “great joys” of the residency, Weilerstein says, has been the open-mindedness of the orchestra to some of her repertoire choices. In addition to the beloved Prokofiev, last October she performed Walton’s cello concerto (under Alsop). This was a work about which she had long been passionate; she describes a similar coup de foudre as with the Prokofiev – “I heard someone playing it I fell in love with it and I had to get my hands on it!” – but admits that it is “not necessarily an audience pleaser.” With its distinct musical language – “it’s very dreamy and reaching; in the same vein as Korngold” – it is rarely performed, much to Weilerstein’s dismay.
“If I strongly believe in something it’s very easy for me to passionately advocate for it – to the point of being annoying, I’m sure!” she admits. “But the Prokofiev and the Walton are two pieces I push everywhere and I almost never get to play them. People say, ‘oh yes, maybe’, then they say, ‘oh no, because we have to sell seats, you gotta play Dvorak’.” She grins. “I mean, not to diminish how great the Dvorak is, it’s probably the best piece we have, but there are others…”
Her commitment to such unconventional repertoire for the Frankfurt residency has certainly been vindicated. “I think the orchestra were a little skeptical about the Walton at first; I believe most of them had never played it before and anyone would approach with trepidation something they’re not familiar with. But during rehearsals I kept hearing murmurs from the first violin section ‘Ah! So schön! So beautiful!’” she smiles. “It was incredibly gratifying to feel them falling in love with it.”
As Weilerstein describes her next few months it’s hard not to feel a little dizzy: as well as the Frankfurt residency, she has solo recital engagements in the coming weeks that take her from Amsterdam to Ramallah; in March she returns to the Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic then heads to Berlin; in May she makes her concerto debut in London with the Philharmonia; over the summer she will perform at numerous chamber festivals – “my soul food”. And meanwhile she is preparing for “a major milestone”, namely her first album for Decca: live recordings of the Elgar and Carter cello concerti with the Berlin Staatskapelle conducted by one of her greatest inspirations and collaborators, Daniel Barenboim.
No wonder Weilerstein, who made her professional debut aged 14 and somehow also found the time to get a degree in Russian History from Columbia University, has just been named a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow. She looks completely unfazed by the challenges ahead. “I played 140 concerts last year. That’s a lot. I know I will be working very hard in the next couple of years and of course, with any new project there are wonderful things and also new pressures.” Her striking green eyes twinkle in anticipation and I have a sudden vision of that determined fourteen-year-old in the car. “But I’m working on such fantastic projects and I’m having a wonderful time. To have this life, to play with the greatest artists and orchestras in the world and to record the cello repertoire? I always dreamed of that.”
Alisa Weilerstein’s next concert with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra is on 16 February.