Alisa Weilerstein: taking it to the bridge

Andrew Stewart meets the cellist of the hour

Classical music has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks. There have been allegations of historic child abuse at Britain's specialist music schools, charges of sexual misconduct levelled against conservatoire teachers and related claims of cover-ups and collusion. Dark clouds have also shaded reports of cash-strapped opera companies and orchestras battling extinction. While the noise of old ways collapsing threatens to drown out the music, it cannot silence the power of great performances. Alisa Weilerstein did her bit to uplift classical fans last month with the release of a remarkable, once-in-a-blue-moon album.

The recording, like the 30-year-old American cellist, is supercharged with virtues that speak to the better part of human nature. Weilerstein's take on two concertos – one a warhorse, the other little known outside the walls of the modernist music ghetto – found instant five-star favour with reviewers. Her reading of Elgar's Cello Concerto has already been ranked alongside Jacqueline du Pré's legendary recording of the work almost half a century ago, the benchmark by which all others have been measured, and usually found wanting. Weilerstein also set down a strong marker for new music's cause by pairing Elgar with Elliot Carter's Cello Concerto, completed just before his 92nd birthday in 2000.

Weilerstein's Elgar recording shares the impassioned spirit of its famous predecessor. And yet its intense lyricism and natural flow stand alone, exceptional qualities that will endure no matter how many times you press Play.

The backstory to her interpretation runs deep. She fell in love with Elgar's concerto and du Pré's recording of it when she was seven. The precociously gifted daughter of premier-league professional musicians, she grew up with the recording and adopted its soloist as her role model. Du Pré's musical ideas and mannerisms proved so strong that Weilerstein had to shelve the disc when she came to add Elgar's score to her own repertoire. But the Englishwoman remained an inspiration, as musician and more.

"Above all, she was a real person," notes Weilerstein when we meet in London. "If I had the chance to meet just one deceased person, she'd be my first choice. She was always my favourite cellist, so much fun and so normal." There's an abundance of positive energy about Weilerstein's personality that invites comparison with her cello-playing idol. But she's wary of being branded "the next Jacqueline du Pré". "That's tricky," she says without adding her signature laugh. Being Alisa Weilerstein, I suggest, matters more. "You said it! People love to pigeon-hole performers but I've never been a fan of putting labels on individuals."

Anyone looking for close similarities between the two musicians should find them in the areas of commitment and communication. "I don't think [du Pré] ever had to try to communicate; it's just who she was. I've talked to many people who knew her and they all say that's how she was: loving, kind, connected." One of her informants was Daniel Barenboim. The superstar conductor and pianist invited Weilerstein to play to him four years ago. He wanted to hear her thoughts on the Elgar.

Barenboim had rarely conducted the work since performing it for the last time with his then wife, du Pré, more than 40 years ago. She was forced to quit the concert platform soon after by the multiple sclerosis that propelled her to an early death in 1987 at the age of 42. If there were unlaid ghosts lurking for Barenboim in the music, Weilerstein's artistry appears to have laid them to rest. Something clicked when she played the piece to him. "It was a very intense thing," she recalls. He invited her to perform the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in the German capital in April 2010. Classical dates don't come much bigger. That was followed soon after by a searing performance televised across Europe from Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre. When the cellist signed an exclusive deal with Decca, Barenboim and his Berlin Staatskapelle were booked for the Elgar.

Alisa Weilerstein emphasises how much she owes to Barenboim. He has been guru and guide, offering suggestions on every aspect of Elgar's composition, from its phrasing to its psychology. Listening to their recording, made last April in Berlin's Philharmonie Hall, I sense that the conductor may have gained something from the experience of working with her. "You should ask him about that," she says. "Maestro Barenboim has so much to say and to give." The conductor's rehearsal methods, she continues, often involve harsh words. "That's his process. If you know that, you don't take it personally. But if some guy off the street spoke to me the way Barenboim did, I would punch his face."

Another loud laugh. Barenboim's straight talking is hardly a state secret; in fact, it may have helped transform Weilerstein from the ranks of outstanding young players into something other: a visionary artist. After one rehearsal for the recording, where Barenboim had been at his most intense, he took the cellist aside. "He said, 'Maybe I'm being a bit tough on you, but it only comes from love and admiration.' I was feeling frazzled and said, 'Yes, maestro'." She shrugs. "But I knew there was such a strong connection [between us], and that what he said was deeply felt. It was incredibly touching. That's why I was prepared to take it."

Weilerstein's performances with Barenboim have opened doors to gigs with the world's top orchestras. She is determined not to take on more than 140 concerts a year, a smart move given the amount of diary space also swallowed by travelling and rehearsal time. That leaves a long line of conductors and others jockeying to book her many years ahead. One young conductor, Rafael Payare, is well placed to jump the queue. The 32-year-old protégé of Venezuela's pioneering El Sistema music education programme is set to marry the cellist this summer. Payare's recent triumph in the Malko Competition for Young Conductors suggests that the pair will, like Barenboim and du Pré before them, be pigeonholed as classical music's golden couple.

Weilerstein is cautiously optimistic about classical music: there is no shortage of exceptionally gifted young performers, she observes. But funding cuts and the costs of staging concerts notwithstanding, she says classical music snobs could yet do the greatest damage. Studying Russian history at Columbia University, she sensed an antipathy from the old guard.

"What's killing classical music? That mentality is! I remember going to concerts as a teenager and was told by older people that they couldn't understand how I could afford a ticket. There are many young people who feel intimidated by that environment. The deeper problem [for classical music] is to draw people in. I have a good platform now and with that comes a responsibility to reach as many as possible, whatever their backgrounds."

Elgar & Carter: Cello Concertos, out now on Decca

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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