Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Champion Cellist

Alisa Weilerstein Plays Penderecki’s Cello Concerto No. 2
New York Philharmonic
November 20—22, 2008
Avery Fisher Hall, 165 West 65th Street

Alisa Weilerstein Plays Beethoven, Kodaly, Chopin and Golijov

December 9, 2008
Zankel Hall, 7th Avenue between 56th and 57th Streets

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein
(photo: Lucio Lecce)
It may be unusual for many musicians, but cellist Alisa Weilerstein has no problems playing a work written the year she was born—1982. The 26-year-old American cellist has always made contemporary music part of her repertoire, and the Cello Concerto No. 2 by Krzysztof Penderecki—which she plays for the first time this weekend with the New York Philharmonic, led by Lorin Maazel—certainly fills the bill.

In addition, Weilerstein’s upcoming December 9 recital at Zankel Hall with pianist Inon Barnatan spotlights her wide-ranging musical interests—from Beethoven and Chopin to the early 20th century Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly to Omaramor, a recent work for solo cello by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose music is also close to Weilerstein’s heart (she gave the New York premiere of Golijov’s Azul in during the Opening Night concert at the 2006 Mostly Mozart Festival).

In the midst of learning Penderecki’s concerto and flying to Europe for more concerts, the cellist discussed performing the music that challenges and inspires her.

Kevin Filipski: This is your first time performing the Second Cello Concerto of Penderecki, a composer who began in the musical avant-garde in the 1950s but who has since turned out lushly romantic compositions. What do you find enticing about this work?
Alicia Weilerstein: It’s true that Penderecki went through several phases–his music through the ‘60s was completely atonal, then in the ‘70s and ‘80s he began writing romantic-sounding music. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this music is romantic, but parts are very dramatic in a Brucknerian way, while others sound very dark, almost like (Russian composer) Alfred Schnittke. Penderecki wrote it in one movement that’s 40 minutes long and goes through four arcs. The opening of the concerto is very eerie, with the instruments sounding almost like insects, until the cello comes in with a very mournful melodic line. It’s not until about one-third of the way through the piece that the orchestra and the cello really begin to interact. I would imagine it might be easier to sit back and listen to, but it’s an extremely emotional and draining piece for me to play.

KF: For these New York Philharmonic concerts, your performance of the Penderecki concerto is sandwiched between one of Bach’s Brandenberg concertos and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
AW: I guess there’s something for everyone on this program!

KF: Have you performed with the Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel before?
AW: I’ve performed with the Philharmonic several times, but so far I’ve only played the Elgar concerto with them in Japan, in Vail and in Hong Kong. Maestro Maazel has one of the most brilliant musical minds I’ve ever encountered–he’s really wonderful to work with, especially on a demanding piece like this.

KF: Unlike some artists, you perform a lot of unfamiliar, modern repertoire, even if conventional wisdom states that audiences stay away from it. Why do you play so much of it?
AW: Because I love it! It’s so expressive and it sounds fresher than many of the more familiar works. I think that all of the things that so many people are afraid of—for whatever reason—just makes me more curious about seeking these works out and hearing them, which usually makes me fall in love with playing them. I always love to explore something that’s not so well-traveled and find my own voice with it–it’s always an amazing journey. I would love to perform Witold Lutoslawski’s cello concerto and Benjamin Britten’s three solo cello suites someday.

KF: Which contemporary composers do you work with closely?

AW: I premiered Lera Auerbach’s 24 Preludes with her on piano last summer at Caramoor, and I’ve also performed her arrangement of Shostakovich’s piano preludes. I’ve been working with Lera quite a bit and have had the opportunity to get to know her music, which is another wonderful journey that I’ve been able to make. Then there’s Joseph Hallman, who is my best friend—he’s also a composer whose music I absolutely love to play. He’s already written two concertos for me (including one which she premiered earlier this year in St. Petersburg, Russia) and several recital pieces, which I play often.

KF: A few weeks following your first performances of the Penderecki concerto, you play a challenging recital program at Zankel Hall. How do you decide which works to play?
AW: On every recital program I do, I try and find pieces that I really love and can identify with. I rarely enjoy doing things like a program by a single composer or an all-Russian program–I’d much rather mix and match the pieces I perform. The wonderful Inon Barnatan, my pianist for this recital, is a terrific collaborator. We begin with Beethoven’s D major cello sonata, one of his most interesting and unusual sonatas, especially in its structure–the last fugue is very wild in its way. We cellists are also lucky to have the Kodaly solo piece to perform. It’s an epic tour de force that is so unique–his musical language, based on the Hungarian folk tunes that he borrowed, is so fantastic that I fall in love with this piece every time I do it. I’ve played Golijov’s wonderful Omaramor many times now, as I have several of his other pieces—I feel a strong affinity for his music and where it takes me. Finally, there’s the Chopin sonata which, again, is a work that I love, and one that I feel is one of Chopin’s very best pieces. So I’d like to think that my program is a snapshot of my musical personality.

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