A Cellist Is Chosen, And Challenged A consummate artist even before she was out of her teens, 29-year-old Alisa Weilerstein has already been granted extraordinary opportunities, from playing for President Obama to taking on an iconic musical assignment.

A Cellist Is Chosen, And Challenged

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Is there's such a thing as cello mojo? Alisa Weilerstein might have it. She was 13 when she debuted with the Cleveland Orchestra. At 15, she was played Carnegie Hall. She was studying at the Juilliard School and Columbia, even as she maintained a performance schedule of 50 dates a year. And last year, Alisa Weilerstein was asked by conductor Daniel Barenboim, who is the widower of the renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pre, to perform Elgar's "Cello Concerto in E Minor" with the Berlin Philharmonic.


SIMON: She became only the second cellist to play Elgar with Barenboim since Jacqueline du Pre's death. And Alisa Weilerstein plays her cello with an intensity that includes her entire body. She joins us now from Charleston, South Carolina where she's performing at Spoleto Festival for her eighth year.

Thanks so much for being with us.

ALISA WEILERSTEIN: Of course. Thank you for having me?

SIMON: And how did you feel when Daniel Barenboim said, I want you to play Elgar?

WEILERSTEIN: I was shocked, actually. I was overwhelmed. It was interesting. I mean, the way I met him was actually a few months before. I had been trying to play for him for several years, actually, and it somehow it never really worked out. And then finally I did in December. And I met him in May 2009, he was in New York and I was actually at the Maestro's Suite in Carnegie Hall, that was his dressing room, and he asked me and, you know, I was...


WEILERSTEIN: ...I was basically speechless. And it was just day a, it was an incredible thing.

SIMON: We want to listen to a little bit of your performance, if we could.



SIMON: And when you play that Elgar piece...


SIMON: ...with Maestro Barenboim...


SIMON: ...Is the presence of Jacqueline du Pre with you?

WEILERSTEIN: Well, yes. Of course. She was always actually my sort of number one favorite cellist even growing up. I mean I think I saw and heard all the footage - audio and video footage of her before I was 10 years old. I mean she died when I was five years old and, of course, she stopped playing in 1973, which was before I was born. And so I listen to everything that she had ever recorded.

However, at the same time, working with Barenboim and just seeing what a incredible musical genius he is and learning so much from his experience with the piece and - I mean all that that implies was also an incredibly intense experience and sort of emotionally exhausting, actually.


SIMON: Tell me a little bit about, well, growing up...


SIMON: ... as the daughter of two concert musicians. Your father...


SIMON: ...Donald, longtime first violinist with the Cleveland Quartet.


SIMON: Your mother Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a pianist. So what got you over to cello in the first place?

WEILERSTEIN: As you say, both my parents were and are fantastic professional musicians. And when I was younger, my father was still in the quartet so he was actually traveling quite a lot and my mom was also, was traveling as well to play her own concerts. And so there was one - at one point they were actually pulled away. That was unusual. Usually one or the other was home. And I was about two and a half and I got chickenpox and my grandmother was coming to take care of me. She felt sort of extra sorry for me because I was alone and sick. And she made a string quartet, so two violins, a viola and a cello out of cereal boxes. And the cello was a Rice Krispies box.


WEILERSTEIN: And she drew the finger board and the F holes. And actually, you know, the cello has an endpin which is actually a metal spike that you actually put into the ground when to play it. And she, you know, she remembered that and she put a...


WEILERSTEIN: ...and the endpin was an old green toothbrush. That was my, you know, that was the pretty funny part of it.

SIMON: Oh, gosh.


SIMON: So you really made that Rice Krispies box go snap, crackle, pop.


WEILERSTEIN: As it were. Yeah. I totally shunned the other instruments for some reason. I just had to have the cello. And I don't remember a single moment in my life where I've ever questioned that I was going to be a cellist.

SIMON: And what's it like to perform with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra when you're 13?

WEILERSTEIN: Oh, it was so much fun. I just had the best time. I'll tell you though exactly how I felt when I was 13. And, you know, very often adolescents feel like they know everything and have - and are very old. And I felt exactly that way. I thought, I have waited my whole long the 13-year-old life to play with the Cleveland Orchestra. It's about time.


WEILERSTEIN: How ridiculous, of course, that sounds.

SIMON: I could've done this when I was nine. Why did they, yeah, take so long.

WEILERSTEIN: Well, no. I don't think I went that far but I just kind of like oh, finally, you know, I waited so long. I was just so excited. Yeah.

SIMON: We have a recording of your performance last year at Spoleto.


SIMON: You played Rachmaninoff's Sonata for cello and piano.


SIMON: Let's hear some of the third movement, if we could.


SIMON: You're very physical on stage.


SIMON: That stands out in a crowd, doesn't it?


WEILERSTEIN: It's not something I do consciously, however. And many people used to - I mean when I was first starting out many people used to say, oh, you move around so much on stage. You make so many faces. You're, I mean you're so expressive. And I really have no idea.


WEILERSTEIN: It was really my - I try to use the analogy, you know, if you go to like a rock concert, for example, and you see people are, well, you see the rock musicians on stage are going crazy. I mean they're bouncing all over the walls and dancing, it always struck me as sort of surprising that people would find that strange in classical music.

SIMON: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein, speaking with us from Charleston, South Carolina where she'll be performing with the Spoleto Festival.

SIMON: Ms. Weilerstein, thanks so much.



SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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