TORONTO — Music is in Alisa Weilerstein’s blood. The 30-year-old American cellist is the daughter of professional violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. Even her brother Joshua is a well-known violinist and conductor. In short, it is no surprise that she became the cellist extraordinaire that she is today – but she is quick to note that her parents never forced the instrument on her.
“They were the opposite of stage parents, they weren’t pushy,” Weilerstein told The CJN during her recent visit to Toronto, where she will be performing Brahms and Shostakovich as a part of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s Matinee Masterworks and Casual Concerts series at Roy Thomson Hall from May 24 to 26.
It was actually Weilerstein’s grandmother who first introduced her to the possibility of playing the cello. Weilerstein was only 2-1/2 years old at the time. Her parents were away on tour and her grandmother was babysitting, trying to put a smile on the face of the young toddler who had just caught the chicken pox.
Her grandmother, whom Weilerstein described as a sort of Joan of all trades, fashioned an entire string quartet out of cereal boxes. The cello, Weilerstein remembers, was made from a Rice Krispies box, and she immediately fell in love with it.
“I would scrub away at this thing trying to make a sound, “ she said with a laugh, adding that when her parents practised music at home, she would sit alongside them with her cereal box cello.
Finally, at age four, Weilerstein’s parents got her a child-sized cello and she began lessons. When she was 13, she debuted as a soloist at the Cleveland Orchestra, after moving with her family to Cleveland, Ohio, from Rochester, N.Y.
“I really got excited,” Weilerstein said when asked about her debut performance at 13. She added that she didn’t get stage fright even as a young teen.
Following her performance, Weilerstein went on to attend the Cleveland Institute of Music’s preparatory program, where she went to regular high school classes in the mornings and studied music intensively in the afternoons. When she was 16, she got the cello that she still uses to this day – a rare 1790 Willian Forster cello. “You have to have a bond with the instrument, but it also grows with you,” she said, explaining that playing over the years actually changes and develops the sound of an instrument.
In 2011, Weilerstein received the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship for her work. This great honour was another of her many important awards, including the Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Leonard Bernstein Prize at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany.
Despite her incredible talent and blossoming career as a musician, Weilerstein continued to pursue her education. In 2004, she graduated with a degree in Russian history from Columbia University in New York City.
Weilerstein’s busy performance schedule, often including about 140 performances each year, has taken her to stages around the world, but when she finds time, she tries to perform with her parents as the Weilerstein Trio.
“There’s a family bond, but there’s also a musical bond,” she said, explaining that there is no sugar-coating the truth in rehearsals with her parents, but the honesty and closeness create a heightened level of musical understanding among the three musicians.
Weilerstein’s most recent major project has been recording Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with famed pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. The recording will be released in November on the record label Decca Classics, to which Weilerstein has recently been signed.
Between her performances and her recording schedule, Weilerstein struggles to find time to get to her New York City home for some rest and relaxation, but she hardly seems to mind. “I feel very lucky – there’s never a dull moment.”
For more information on Alisa Weilerstein’s Toronto performances, please visit http://bit.ly/KoIPyj.