Alisa Weilerstein: The Prodigy Daughter
Some of us will spend a lifetime searching for our calling. Cellist Alisa Weilerstein found hers at age 5.
Alisa Weilerstein is a preeminent cellist who has appeared with all the major orchestras of the United States, Europe, and Asia. She was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2011.
Weilerstein was born in 1982 in Rochester, NY, into a family of musicians: her parents are both instructors at the Juilliard School and New England Conservatory. She began playing cello at age 4 and had her professional concert debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra. She made her first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1997 with the New York Youth Symphony. A graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Weilerstein also holds a degree in history from Columbia University.
Admired for her emotionally resonant virtuosity and interpretive depth, she is the foremost performer of Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello and a champion of contemporary classical music, premiering several new concertos. She regularly tours with her parents as the Weilerstein trio.
The celebrated American cellist Alisa Weilerstein always knew the answer to the ubiquitous childhood question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Alisa Weilerstein: I always knew I wanted to play with great orchestras, and great musicians, and in great halls. I knew that when I was five. When I was 13, and I played with the Cleveland Orchestra for the first time, I thought, “I have waited my whole, long 13-year-old life for this, and it’s about time.” That’s what I felt. It’s a terrible thing to admit, perhaps, but that was my feeling.
Weilerstein couldn’t have been born into a family better suited to supporting her ambitions. Though they would later form a touring trio with their daughter, her pianist mother and violinist father—celebrated educators at both Juilliard and the New England Conservatory—were far from typical stage parents.
Weilerstein: I didn’t practice four hours a day when I was five, just to be clear—not at all. And, in fact, my parents were very clear that they wanted me to fall in love with music and the instrument first, and then the nitty-gritty, hard work could come a little later. They were quite relaxed about that in my earliest childhood.
AJC: I mean they were pretty clever about it, because you wanted to have a cello when you were three, and they wouldn’t let you have one until you were four or five, right? So they were almost like…
Weilerstein: More or less, yes.
AJC: “You’re not ready, you’re not ready, okay go on then.”
Weilerstein: Yeah, exactly. They said, “Okay, you really want this? Here, go ahead.” And so what I would do, because I loved it so much, I had my, let’s say, my half an hour of formal practice, where I would learn where things were, and things like that, and then my mom would say, “Okay, I need to practice now.” My mom would practice, and I would take my cello into my room, and I would kind of bang around on it for an hour or two. That was my toy. Friends would come over, and I would say, “I want to play for you.” These poor people would have to sit down and have to listen to me play on my horrible 16th-size instrument, and I’m a beginning cellist. But when I was around nine, we came across someone who said to my parents, “You know, she needs to practice properly, and you need to listen to her as you would listen to, with the same center that you listen to your students. She doesn’t need to be messing around like this.”
AJC: It was almost like they were the opposite of helicopter parents.
Weilerstein: Yeah, very much.
AJC: That they didn’t necessarily create ambition for you, that somebody had to walk in and go, “Actually, this kid might have a bit more going on than you think.”
Weilerstein: Yeah, I think that they knew what I could do, but they just thought about, “Well, she’ll come to that on her own.” And of course, it’s impossible for anyone to come to this kind of discipline without some guidance. And so once they heard that perspective, that was when I started working with my father daily.
Between ages nine and 16, Weilerstein would spend two hours a day learning from her father, a self-described perfectionist. There was plenty of intensity and rigor in Alisa’s training, but also a great deal of levity.
Weilerstein: We had about five different characters that he brought out, five different voices. My father’s seen as this great pedagog, they don’t know this sort of silly side of him, which he, of course, he brought out with his kids, with myself and my brother.
AJC: Which is also great teaching, by the way.
Weilerstein: It’s fantastic teaching. It’s amazing teaching. It’s the best teaching. My favorite character was actually the meanest, and he would talk in opposites. So, like, let’s say, the better I would play, the madder he would get, and he would be really funny, and you know, stomp around, and he had a ridiculous voice and everything else. I would say he was my teacher for the first couple of years I was working with my father.
AJC: But not in a mean way.
Weilerstein: No, it was funny. That was the thing. And it was a way that I could kind of rebel against being told what to do, in that kind of way, so he let me have that outlet.
The young Weilerstein was deeply committed to her instrument, but the cello would not be her only obsession.
Weilerstein: I fell in love with Russian music when I was around 12 or 13, and then I fell in love with Russian literature.
AJC: Both of which share a huge romantic soul, combined with a horrific capacity for angst.
Weilerstein: Angst, yeah, and kind of edited suffering, and I wanted to put it in context.
AJC: And when you got the context, what did it do?
Weilerstein: In a way, it confused me more, just because there is so much that we still don’t know. And it’s incredibly complicated, and even it’s still playing out in the present. And it just reinforces the idea to me that the world is really just a bunch of shades of gray.
Weilerstein would go on to study Russian history at Columbia University, and has shown a special affinity for the great Russian composers, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich, who lived in fear of expressing their deepest selves.
Weilerstein: There are so many things that they could never express openly, but that are so hidden in the music, and that you have to present with kind of a poker face, but that inside you’re in absolute agony.
AJC: But to access that, to connect to that, you have to leave yourself exposed in some way.
Weilerstein: Completely, completely.
Weilerstein: No. For me, this is what I live for, really, as an artist. It’s about giving. It’s about completely giving of this incredible music, giving of yourself. And, I mean, it’s a very raw and kind of selfless act.
AJC: As you age, and as you grow and as you develop, do they mean different things, do they have a different place?
Weilerstein: Absolutely, especially the greater the work, the more you find.
Weilerstein: I don’t restrict myself from anything, even though I know that I’m going to evolve, and I’m going to change, and take different directions. I always, for example, I always had the idea that I wouldn’t record the all the Bach Suites, or that I wouldn’t even play them all in public until I’m, I don’t know, 60.
Weilerstein: Well, just because that this is the most “high church” music, and I need experience to really do them justice. That was my reasoning before. But now I feel there is nothing wrong with approaching them with my current experience and my current way of thinking, and then allowing them to change and allowing myself to grow with them this way, and allow the audience also to grow with this. I’ve made my peace with that.
And it is thus that Alisa Weilerstein strides headlong into the world, with a cello in hand and an insatiable curiosity in mind.