by Mike Telin
We spoke to Alisa Weilerstein about many things, including the dual role she will have this week when she performs the Dvorak Cello Concerto and later joins Jamey Haddad, Dylan Moffitt, Keita Ogawa and Michael Ward-Bergeman in the World Music portion of the evening on the Fridays @ 7 series on November 20. We also talked about her passion for Russian literature, her upcoming live television performance of the Elgar Concerto with Daniel Barenboim, and her work as spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
We began by asking her about her participation in Classical Music Day at the White House, and her feelings about the significance of the event that had occurred the previous day.
Alisa Weilerstein: I’m not sure how much you know about what was going on, but there was a huge emphasis on education so we did workshops in the afternoon. I had 24 cellists come to my class and 20 of them brought their instruments. I started out by playing a piece by Golijov for them. Then we had a nice discussion about the state of classical music today because this is a question that I am asked all the time and I wanted to hear what they had to say about it. It was very nice to hear their perspectives about it and they were very forthcoming with their answers and ideas. Then, because so many students brought their instruments, we rehearsed the slow movement of Bachianis Brasilerias #1 of Villa-Lobos, which was an incredibly beautiful movement. The levels of playing varied quite widely. Some of them were much more developed then others so it was actually a little scary, because I wasn’t given too many details about anyone, but it actually worked out really well in the end. We were able to talk about playing and orchestra playing and so I feel like we covered a lot of bases. Then we had a workshop concert in the afternoon, which was attended by the First Lady. I played duets with an 8-year old cellist, Sujari Britt, a wonderful cellist. I had rehearsed with her about a week and a half before that and she played the Saint-Saëns concerto for me, and keep in mind that she is 8. She is super, super gifted. She has a wonderful relationship with me and she and I are absolutely passionate about it. I also played The Swan with a marimba player named Jason Yoder, who is also a really gifted kid. And then I did a solo piece by Golijov. Then for the evening concert — this wasn’t supposed to happen — but the First Lady was so taken by the kids, that she invited them back to play in the evening concert as well, which was attended by the President, several members of congress. Edward Norton was there — actually a lot of famous people. I did the last movement of the Kodaly solo sonata, then Joshua Bell, Awadagin Pratt and I did the last movement of the Mendelssohn d minor trio together. It was really fun.
MT: As a young person, how do you see your role in the promotion of classical music and what do you think the state of classical music is. Does it need to be fixed and if so, how do we go about fixing it?
AW: I think we had a big boost yesterday. The amount of press coverage that this got is un-believable. I don’t think I have ever seen classical music get this much coverage. There was a huge amount of press at the workshops and they were all asking me what does this mean to you, and what does it mean that the Obama’s are having classical music events. And I can’t tell you, I mean it means so much to have administrations that are aware and are trying to promote the importance of this to kids and to have it in the schools when arts programs are being cut all over the place. It was so gratifying to see it get so much attention, to have an entire day devoted to it and bringing it to young people. Bringing it into the White House and seeing musicians like Josh Bell, Sharon Isbin and Awadagin Pratt. I don’t know, it was a very special day.
MT: I must say that I was so happy for you when I read the announcement in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The New York Times. I think you a great ambassador for this along with Josh Bell and Sharon Isbin.
MT: How did you become interested in Russian Literature?
AW: I don’t remember exactly when I fell in love with Russian Literature, but I was like, I want more of this. My major was actually history, but I did take a lot if literature classes. But it was also the music. The Soviet era actually was my history specialty, but I did take a lot of 19th century Russian drama classes and 20th century literature, and Soviet literature as well. So I would say it was the music of that time and becoming exposed to the literature when I was in high school — that was it for me.
MT: I think it so fascinating how music and literature go so well together.
MT: Regarding the Friday @ 7 series, I understand that you will be doing double duty first performing the Dvorak Concerto with the orchestra and later joining Jamey Haddad during the world music portion?
AW: Yes I am very excited about that, and it’s great that you were able to talk to Jamey.
MT: I heard you play the Dvorak with the Chicago Symphony back in June.
AW: Yes, and I just played it with Philadelphia. It’s my Dvorak month!
MT: So what will you be doing with Jamey? Will it be something like what you did after the performance of Azul with the orchestra back in April?
AW: You heard the Azul and the encore after, so that was kind of the catalyst actually. I had done Azul with the guys many times and then, Michael and Jamey came up to me and said would you consider learning a tune for an encore, learning to improvise on stage? I was completely freaked out about improvising on stage. I had never done anything like that, but they are unbelievable musicians as you know, and they gave me so much, just playing with them. I felt very free to do it and it went really well and we loved doing it so much that we said, we really have got to do some more of this. So we are picking out some other tunes which we will surprise you with. I don’t know what Jamey told you, maybe he has spoiled the surprise.
MT: No he hasn’t. Like you he said, I would be in for a surprise.
AW: So, yeah, it’s going to fun, it going to be really fun.
MT: Looking at your schedule, you are doing so many things, but something that stuck out for me is that I understand you will be performing the Elgar concerto with Barenboim in Berlin?
AW: Yes, it will be a live television performance and it will be released on DVD.
MT: So how did this project come about? It is something pretty amazing.
AW: Yes, It really doesn’t get any better then that. I am so excited! It actually came about because I played for maestro Barenboim in December, nearly a year ago. I had tried for six years to get in front of him to play for him and it never worked. Then the stars were aligned and the time was right and finally I did. I played Dvorak for him, actually, among some other things, and he said, I really want to spend more time with you. Please come and play for me again. So in February I went to Milan and I had a three hour lesson with him on the Dvorak concerto which was just unbelievable. It was one of the most informative, incredible musical experiences I have had ever in my life. And then he said, I am coming to New York in May, and this was when he was conducting the Mahler and doing a crazy amount of playing and conducting, and he said please come see me. So I did, but it took all of the courage I could muster to play Elgar for him, because no one knows that piece better then he does, for obvious reasons. But I knew a close friend of his, Usher Fish, actually he’s the one that I really owe my life to because he’s the one that got me in front of him, but he told me, you should really play that for him because you know that he really likes you and that you could learn so much from him on that piece. So I went in there thinking of this as an educational experience. I went in and we played through the entire thing, with him on the piano, and of course he had a million things to say as he always does and then he says, so by the way do you want to do this with me in Berlin? So he described the concert to me and I almost fell over.
MT: I was going to say, did you fall off your chair?
AW: Yes, it was so unbelievable, but also it was very late in the day to book for the 09-10 season. It was already May of 2009, which was just six months ago, so my season was already completely full. So it was just a miracle that it happened
MT: Congratulations, I can’t think of a better person to be part of such a monumental occasion. The significance of this goes without saying.
AW: Thank-you, thank you so much.
MT: The last thing I want to ask you about is your work as spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
AW: Yes, I have been meeting with a lot of the local chapters of the organization, which is a great, great organization, and I have been speaking to a lot of families and spreading the message that of course insulin is not a cure. The disease should not stop anyone from doing what they want to do with their lives. I have had an extremely active life and I have had it for 17 and 1/2 years, since I was 9 years old, and so while it is something that is not always easy to deal with, it does not need to be an obstacle in any way, it does not need to stand in the way of anyone’s dreams. So that what I have been trying to communicate with families. Just talking about what it’s like to deal with because It really is a 24-7-365 days a year job, that is the hardest thing about it. I think it is really good for kids to know that they are not alone, and there are people from many different walks of life that deal with it and manage it beautifully.