The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Cellist Alisa Weilerstein talks about The Obama White House, Dvorak’s concerto, music education and life with diabetes

November 8, 2010
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform its second concert of the season.

Performances in Overture Hall are Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15.50-$75.50. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit:

The eclectic and accessible MUST-HEAR program includes the “Suite from ‘The Great Gatsby,’” by John Harbison. Harbison (below), an acclaimed and award-winning composer who also co-directs the nearby Token Creek Chamber Music Festival each summer, recently completely this suite, made from his 2000 opera commissioned by and performed at the Met, at the suggestion of conductor David Zinman. It has a lot of local interest.

For more program notes, visit:

The program also includes Richard Strauss’ “Til Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” a raucous late Romantic work.

But for many listeners the highpoint will be the appearance of guest cellist Alisa Weilerstein, 26, who has been called their heir apparent to Yo-Yo ma and who will make her MSO debut in Dvorak’s popular and tuneful Cello Concerto. When she played with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and then did a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater, she drew standing ovations.

Weilerstein (below), who just returned from a tour of Europe, recently did an e-mail interview with The Ear:

How do you place or rank the Dvorak Cello Concerto in the cello concerto repertoire (including the Elgar Concerto you just released on DVD) and among your favorites to perform? You are touring with the Dvorak Concerto. Why do you think the public loves it so much?

As a piece, I think the Dvorak Concerto is probably the most “perfect” music we have in the cello repertoire. I also happen to think it ranks among the best works for any instrument by Dvorak (below). It has everything one could want–perfect structure, incredible melodies, pathos, humor, virtuosity, tragedy, and ecstasy.  It runs the gamut of human emotion.  I think that’s why it’s one of the most beloved works ever written.

You played at the White House for the Obamas. What can you tell us about how classical music in appreciated there and by the President, The First Lady and the First Family?

The fact that a Classical Music Day was even organized at the White House demonstrates a commitment to the arts I had never seen before. Mrs. Obama demonstrated such passion for, and a commitment to, arts education throughout the day. Performing for the First Family was a combination of terrifying and exhilarating!

President Obama had a humorous anecdote about how John F. Kennedy used to have a member of his staff give him a signal to let him know when to applaud.  He then said he was relying on Michelle to tell him.

I certainly hope the First Family enjoyed the performances and I felt the whole experience was extraordinary in placing classical music on a very public stage. I have certainly never seen so much press coverage for a classical music event.

What was that White House experience like? Can you pass along some specifics including what you played and how people reacted to you and other classical music performers?

Needless to say, the whole day really was the experience of a lifetime and I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of it.  For the workshop, I had a kind of unusual set up: there were about 25 middle school and high school cello students who all brought their instruments with them.  I wanted to find a way to include all of them, so I set up a mini-orchestra for us to read through the slow movement of Villa Lobos’ “Bachianas Brasileiras” No. 1.

We started out by talking about music, and the state of classical music in the US and around the world, and then we had a mini rehearsal together.  Nearly all of the students had very interesting thoughts to contribute, and we had a great time rehearsing.

The workshop ended with a concert for the First Lady and the students, and was followed by the evening concert for the President Obama and the entire First Family, and about 200 guests.

It was incredibly gratifying to see so much interest in classical music from new places–in addition to being an incredibly moving experience in so many ways I think it was a really fantastic opportunity for us to show that classical music isn’t at all an antiquated art form, but is rather something that ought to be so exciting and current.

You have performed in Madison with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and in a recital at the Wisconsin Union Theater. Now you will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Do you have an impression of Madison and how it receives classical music?

I have indeed been to Madison twice and each time was a wonderful experience.  Lovely city, nice people and great food! The audience there is fantastic — really attentive and warm.  I’m looking forward to going back.

How do you suggest getting young people interested in classical music and in attending classical concerts?

I grew up in a musical family – my father is a violinist and my mother is a pianist — so classical music has always been a part of my life.  I didn’t have to leave my house to attend performances — they were happening right there in my living room!

I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in classical music.  It has been a life-long love, but I am aware that this is not the case for everyone.  This is something I actually discussed with the students in the White House workshop.  The first question I asked them was: “How can we show that classical music really is accessible and interesting, and ought to be a part of contemporary life?”

We all seemed to agree that exposure is most important — arts programs all over the US are being cut left and right, and the state of the economy is accelerating that process.

I strongly feel that all professional classical musicians have an obligation to reach out to schools, perhaps especially those that don’t have arts programs.  I personally try to do that as much as I can, and I have found without exception that students truly appreciate the music and become fascinated by it, which is incredibly rewarding to see.

What plans do you have for recordings (solo, chamber or concertos), TV or other appearances or projects?

I do have recording plans, which will be announced very soon and about which I am very excited. I also have another extremely busy concert season ahead with around 140 concerts this season.

One of the projects I am excited about is a contemporary music project that I have been working on with singer/songwriter and pianist — and very good friend! — Gabriel Kahane (below).  We will be performing a new song cycle Gabe has written for piano, cello and voice.

I am also thrilled to be touring with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic next year to major cities throughout the U.S. performing Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, including Carnegie Hall on my birthday.

Was there a turning point — a particular composer or production or work (maybe even the Dvorak Concerto?) when you knew you wanted to devote your life to the cello?

As strange as it may seem, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know I wanted to be a musician. It was something I always knew instinctively and I’ve never felt the need to question it.

As for the Dvorak Concerto, I listened to it from the time I was a toddler and always loved it.  In fact, when I first started the cello — when I was around 4 years old — I desperately wanted to learn it.  Of course this was impossible since I barely knew what I was doing as a beginner, but it was my life’s ambition at that age to play the Dvorak Concerto with different orchestras.  I even remember having dreams about doing that.

Is there anything else you would like to add or wish I had asked?

I am very proud to be a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and November is Diabetes Awareness Month.  Diabetes has never restrained my work as a musician, and that’s the message I’m trying to spread through my work with JDRF.

I’ve had Type 1 diabetes for nearly 19 years, and while of course it is a hassle and a burden sometimes, it’s something that I manage and it has never hindered any of my activities in any way.

All of us who work for JDRF also want to spread the message that insulin is a treatment, not a cure, and that we need to be vigilant about finding a real cure for diabetes.

For more information, people should visit:

Here, to whet your appetite — just listen to the cheers of excitement — is Weilerstein performing the opening of the beautiful beyond words Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra under phenom conductor Gustavo Dudamel:

Posted in Classical music

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