Alisa Weilerstein Interview: Learning music from ‘the inside’

It is a dilemma that faces any musician curating a programme for a concert or a recording – what to programme with a work that is so iconic that there is a risk of eclipsing whatever else is presented with it?  The Cello Concerto in E minor opus 85, by Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934) is one such creation, a ‘must-have’ in the recording repertoire of any cellist of note.

It was a decision faced by  the prodigiously gifted 31 year old cellist Alisa Weilerstein when she recorded Elgar’s masterwork for Decca with the Staatskapelle Berlin, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Earlier this month, Alisa Weilerstein spoke to SoundsLikeSydney about the recording and her upcoming tour to Sydney with the Maher Chamber Orchestra.

Weilerstein’s approach to a match for Elgar’s Cello Concerto was born of a suggestion from  Daniel Barenboim,  to couple Elgar’s masterpiece with the Cello Concerto (2001) of Elliot Carter  (1908 – 2012). “He’s a huge advocate of Carter’s music,” she says. ” I actually didn’t know the piece at the time, but as soon as I heard it, I thought the idea was fantastic.”  She adds “To understand where were going,  we need to understand where we’ve come from and so pairing the Carter with something very familiar like the Elgar is the best context to put it in. Elgar and Carter are so diametrically opposed in character that you really see many different sides of what the cello can do, and  whenever I have control over the programme, I try to have as much variety as possible.”

Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin have long championed the music of Elliot Carter. In his blog, Barenboim says: ” For me personally, Elliott Carter is also one of the most important composers of the 20th and 21st centuries because he represents substance. He is living proof of uncompromising, complex music, and is for this reason at first glance inaccessible. When one delves into the music and sees its development, it becomes more accessible. I believe this is Carter’s great lesson: to always concentrate uncompromisingly on the musical substance, and not to try to incorporate popular elements like so many composers today.” Barenboim also refreshingly admits:  “The Staatskapelle told me practically from the beginning: “We don’t actually understand why this music is so important to you, but we are curious and interested.” They rehearsed very intensively indeed, and no detail was too minor for their effort.”

Written in 1919, Elgar’s Cello Concerto had an uncertain beginning, but eventually found its rightful place as a cornerstone of the professional cellist’s repertoire. Apart from Elgar’s own premiere recording in 1920 with Beatrice Harrison as soloist, his opus 85 has been immortalised by just about every name in the canon of cellists through the decades from Casals (1945) and Tortelier (1954), to Rostropovich (1958), Yo-Yo Ma, Isserlis, Truls Mørk, Wispelwey and Maisky. Towering above all these is the 1965 version by the 20 year old Jacqueline du Pré, with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra. Sitting alongside this version is the 1970 recording infused with the powerful personal chemistry of du Pré, conducted by her husband Daniel Barenboim with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Alisa Weilerstein first heard Elgar’s Cello Concerto when she was about seven or eight. In the literature accompanying the recording she saysI  was drawn to it instantly, haunted by it. I listened to Jacqueline du Pré’s recording almost as a daily ritual. She became my childhood heroine. But when I was twelve and started working seriously on the piece, I knew I had to put her recordings aside. Her interpretation was so convincing, so powerful. I had to force myself to find my own way.”

I asked her how she set about discovering the path to her  personal understanding and performance of the work. “I tried to start with a completely blank slate” she explained. “Of course I studied the score, but learning is by experience also. I played it for my teachers, in master classes and with an orchestra for the first time when I was 15. It was in the playing of the piece where I learned most about what works and what doesn’t. For example, certain  timings that worked by myself didn’t work so well when it came to playing it with an orchestra.”

She was also quick to point out that the attempt to make a performance ‘unique’ is fraught with the potential to fail, as well as being immodest. “I never consciously try to make a performance my own.  I try to do the right thing by the score, and there are natural responses that a musical person has – but I never set out to make something unique- that’s very arrogant for a performer to say. The job of a performer is of course to bring something to life and by doing that you out your own stamp on it. Equally, I know that I play Elgar’s concerto differently to other people and that’s the result of an organic process. By setting out to be different I would be approaching music from the outside, which is I think is absolutely the wrong way to approach it. You have to start from the inside and go from there.”

Talking of starting from the inside, Alisa Weilerstein was one of the last musicians to meet with Elliot Carter before his death, and learn first hand from the composer, how he wanted his cello concerto played. It was a momentous meeting. ” It was wonderful  to see how affable he was and to see his  nature as a kind human being, congenial and optimistic – and that is how his music is – full of humour and full of observations about life. For instance, in the 6th section of his cello concerto -it’s not divided into movements- he says he was with his wife in a Japanese moss garden and there were bamboo tubes that would fill up with water and then snap. So you hear this very serene background, with the instruments holding very long, meditative notes, almost like being on a trip and then you suddenly hear these jarring interruptions when you can just imagine these things snapping – his music is full of fantastic imagery; it’s a very conversational spoken music – that’s the kind of person he was.”

I asked her about working from within in the case of the Elgar concerto and Daniel Barenboim’s perspectives. Although Barenboim has rarely performed the work since recording it with du Pre, for this  reason, he knows this piece of music intimately. Weilerstein describes Barenboim as a “remarkable coach and teacher. He has a thousand great ideas about everything and yet never imposes his point of view on you. So I never felt that I was forced to play it in any particular way. Instead, I was becoming a much better version of what I had been doing –  and I was hungry for more. I was incredibly inspired after every session I had with him and I’m grateful for his generosity and his kindness in recording with me. The Staatskapelle Berlin is an incredible orchestra, which has worked with Daniel Barenboim for decades and they saw his vision.”

Weilerstein performs at the Sydney Opera House in June with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, performing the Cello Concerto No.1, Op.107 by Shostakovich. It is the second outing for her with both the MCO and in the Sydney Opera House. She performed in Europe with the MCO last year, as well as with the Sydney Symphony in Sydney last year. With musicians gathered from around the world and no home town base, she describes the MCO as ‘the gypsy orchestra’ and will have already rehearsed with them for  week in Dortmund before meeting them in Sydney.

“The MCO” she says, “makes for an incredibly exciting dynamic on stage.  Each one of them is a fantastic musician; each one is incredibly committed to an excellent result- they’re searching, curious, young and also have a fantastic time together.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

Alisa Weilerstein performs the Cello Concerto no 1 opus 107 by Shostakovich with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra conducted by Daniel Harding, at the Sydney Opera House on June 11th at 7 pm.

Tickets from $49, transaction fees apply.

Bookings: or call (02) 9250 7777

Alisa Weilerstein’s recording of the Elgar/Carter Cello Concertos with Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is available on Decca (478 2735 DH)

Watch Alisa Weilerstein’s meeting with Elliot Carter here.

Read Daniel Barenboim’s writings on the music of Elliot Carter here.




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