Part of our “Performer Picks” series of interviews with world-renowned artists about their favorite works in the B&H catalog. Read other “Performer Picks” interviews with Hilary Hahn, Simone Young, and Miguel Harth-Bedoya.
One of the foremost cellists of our time, Alisa Weilerstein is a celebrated interpreter of music from the 20th and 21st centuries, and has collaborated with numerous composers. When asked what draws her to a composer’s music, she describes a marriage of “heart and head”—music that compels you on an instinctual level that is constructed in a way that allows a listener to enter in.
Weilerstein admires legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s relationship with many of the 20th century’s greatest composers:
“We cellists—and the world of classical music lovers—have Rostropovich to thank for much of the 20th-century cello repertoire written by Britten, Shostakovich, Prokofieff, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux. He’s arguably the greatest example of somebody who had such amazing, fruitful relationships with composers. He loved the music of his time and championed it, and I think it’s my generation’s job to do the same.”
Recently, she has unveiled her ambitious FRAGMENTS project, featuring 27 composers from around the world—including composers Ana Sokolovic, Osvaldo Golijov, and Courtney Bryan—who have each contributed 10-minute musical fragments to be woven together with movements of Bach’s solo cello suites.
Weilerstein recently sat down with us to discuss some of her favorite works in the Boosey & Hawkes catalog. Read her interview below, and listen to her "Performer Picks" playlist on Spotify.
1. Ana Sokolovic, Fragments
I came across Ana’s music quite recently. My husband, Rafael Payare, the director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and San Diego Symphony, had worked with her and recommended her music to me. I remember speaking to Ana and feeling a strong connection with her musical values. She has a kind of curiosity in her approach, and writes with a perfect marriage of heart and head. It’s very visceral and highly engaging.
FRAGMENTS is a kaleidoscope of different voices. I asked each of the composers to write about 10 minutes of music that I could intersperse with other works by colleagues, as well as with the movements of Bach. In performance, I don’t reveal the program order to the audience until the end of the concert. Ana wrote a fabulous solo cello piece that I immediately incorporated into the project. It was a very defined, distinctive voice—and it was clear exactly where it belonged on the program. Some pieces take a little bit longer to get to know, but with hers, I felt I knew it immediately.
> Watch Weilerstein discuss FRAGMENTS
2. Unsuk Chin, Cello Concerto
I had known about Unsuk Chin’s music for many years. She had written this cello concerto that was premiered and championed by my amazing colleague Alban Gerhardt in 2009, and then revised in 2013. I feel it’s one of the best concertos written for the instrument, period.
It’s a remarkable piece—so complete, so satisfying. She grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go, either as a listener or as the player. The music demands an immense amount of concentration from the player—not just their individual part, but the intricate way it fits with the ensemble.
She allows the cello to sing, but she also makes use of its virtuosic capabilities. It’s really an amazing vehicle for the instrument. You never have the feeling that anything is written for any superficial reason, everything is completely honest and in service of the greater music making. So, it’s a joy to play honest-to-goodness music like that.
> Listen to Chin's Cello Concerto
3. Benjamin Britten, Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Op. 68
I first discovered Britten’s Cello Symphony in my early 30s. The other cello symphony, Prokofieff’s Sinfonia Concertante, was a piece I had been playing since my teens—that’s an underplayed concerto, but the Britten is even more underplayed. It’s a more specific language, which I happen to be a die-hard fan of—this visceral quality, almost primal, mixed with this austere language.
There is a moment in the third movement, the passacaglia, where you have a trio of cello, timpani, and tuba. I mean, who in the world would come up with something like that, and also make it sound like such a work of genius? It’s such inspired writing.
> Listen to Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra
4. Osvaldo Golijov, Azul
We often hear the phrase, “Music is a universal language,” but I really think it applies to Osvaldo’s music. It doesn’t need explanation—you play three notes of his music, and you understand the incredible depth and emotion in it.
I met Osvaldo in 2005 through the St. Lawrence String Quartet and Todd Palmer. About a year later, he asked me to play the New York premiere of Azul, but he was still reworking the piece. I wound up going to Banff in summer 2007 to meet with Osvaldo (who was composer-in-residence there), with the premiere only weeks away. We were improvising with Michael Ward-Bergeman, and I played him some random bits of cello repertoire. A week later, I received a waterfall of new material from Osvaldo, and a day and a half before the premiere I got the final version! [laughs] I say that with all the love in the world—that’s how Osvaldo works and everyone knows it. It was a beautiful and adrenaline-filled kind of time, and we all just enjoyed it so much. It was great.
There’s a kind of prescribed freedom in Azul. I’m not improvising, but other musicians are, and I have to react to it. They’ll do wildly different things, and that in turn inspires me to spontaneously change a dynamic or something. Osvaldo encourages that—he’ll say, “Just let the magic happen.” There’s a non-verbal dialog going on all the time between musicians, and it’s what you live for, playing any sort of ensemble music.
> Listen to Golijov's Azul
5. Elliott Carter, Cello Concerto
Daniel Barenboim had the brilliant idea to perform and record the Carter Cello Concerto with the Elgar Cello Concerto—incredibly contrasting voices, yet with plenty of commonality, too. I found it fascinating how much humor Barenboim saw in Carter’s music.
I know that Elliott did listen to the recording and was very pleased with it. He wrote a beautiful note expressing his appreciation for the recording, which of course I cherished—he passed away about two weeks later at the ripe young age of 103. There is a video of us in conversation, and I asked him, ‘Can I play for you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, sure. I don’t remember the piece, but you can try.’ And he had this giant magnifying glass and the score in his hand, and he told me, ‘I won’t say anything.’
He lasted about seven seconds. [laughs] ‘No, no. Why are you playing this chord like this?’ He knew exactly the kind of character that he wanted. One of the last things he said was, ‘I want this to sing. The cello must sing.’ And in the fourth movement it does. That was something that I had to search for and really play into.
I said earlier, Ana Sokolovic’s music spoke to me immediately—Carter’s did not. I needed time to go into the language. Eventually I did see the humor, and enjoyed the kind of puzzles you hear in the music, and the characterful orchestration and rhythmic language. Ultimately, I did grow into the language, and I believe we made a good recording.
> Listen to Weilerstein’s recording of Carter’s Cello Concerto
Photo: Evelyn Freja
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