Born to play

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to Israel to participate in the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival.

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to Israel to participate in the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival (photo credit: LUCIO LECCE)
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein returns to Israel to participate in the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival
(photo credit: LUCIO LECCE)
American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is a frequent guest on our shores.
The 32-year-old musician, who first came to Israel at age 15 to participate in a master class, returns often to give recitals and chamber programs, as well as perform as a soloist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. This September, she will be back as a participant of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival.
Born into a musical family – her father, prominent violinist Donald Weilerstein; her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein – she has been immersed in chamber music from day one "or maybe even in the womb" as she says in a phone interview with The Jerusalem Post.
"At that time, my father was the first violin of the Cleveland Quartet, and they rehearsed at home a lot. Later, I used to sit under my mother's piano and felt really unhappy if she practiced less than three or four hours," Weilerstein laughs.
She adds, "My first music memory is that I would listen to Don Giovanni with my father every night, being especially attracted to Il Commendatore. The rest of the opera didn’t interest me," she says.
And then the cello entered her life.
"I was two and a half when I got chicken pox and stayed home, while my parents went on tour. My sweet grandmother, who took care of me, tried to amuse me by making a string quartet of cereal boxes, chopsticks and other improvised materials. I was totally drawn to the cello, shunning other instruments. I believed that from that moment on, I would be able to make music with my parents; but, to my regret, my cello did not produce any sound!" she recounts Yet she already knew that playing the cello was what she wanted to do in life. At the age of four and a half, she convinced her parents to give her her first instrument.
Now, as a mature musician, she says, "The cello probably has the widest range of colors of all the instruments. It is so soulful, so expressive, which keeps me searching for ways to express music more deeply." Making her first public appearance at 15, Weilerstein has been enjoying a globetrotting career.
As for her favorite repertoire, she laughs, "I always say that since the cello repertoire is rather limited compared to that of the piano and violin, I cannot afford that luxury – I play everything! I see myself as a trilingual cellist, combining solos, recitals and chamber music." At university she studied Russian literature – and not because of her parents' Russian roots ("that was many generations ago," she notes).
"I was attracted by the emotionality of Russian literature and Russian music.
I think I first got acquainted with the music of Shostakovich, and only later with that of Tchaikovsky," she says.
Some cellists develop an almost human relationship with their instrument and claim that the cello, if abandoned for a while, feels offended by the lack of attention and is unwilling to play as beautifully. Others see it just as a piece of wood with strings.
"I am somewhere in between,” says Weilestein. “I believe that instruments respond to playing and to the artist's development. But, of course, there is something personal about our instrument. I am now in transition between two types of cello. I played the William Forster cello for half of my life, from age 16, and I feel that I dug from it everything I could. We grew up together. Now I play the Montagnana.
This is a totally different class of instrument, one of those priceless Italian celli. I feel that I've discovered a new love. It's capable of expressing so much. I've been playing it for only two months, and I feel that I've only barely scratched the surface. I hope for a long and fruitful relationship," she says.
Weilerstein has nothing but praise for the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival and its special family atmosphere. And no, she never hesitates to come to Israel, no matter what the security situation is.
The 17th annual festival takes place at the YMCA auditorium. The nine-day event starts on September 4.
According to festival founder and artistic director pianist Elena Bashkirova, the programs are dedicated to commemorating two diverse and highly significant anniversaries.
“The first is the centenary of the outbreak of World War I within the context of musical history,” she says.
“At the same time, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss, one of the most important precursors of musical modernism." And this is what defines the music program this year. As for the performers, the roster is traditionally a creative mixture of European and Israeli musicians, some at the peak of their international careers, while others are taking their first steps onto the world stage.
For more details: Reservations: (02) 625-0444.