New Classical Tracks: Starting with a Rice Krispie Box

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
September 17, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — Alisa Weilerstein - Dvořák Cello Concerto: Jiří Bělohlávek/Czech Philharmonic (Decca B0018765)

"I know this has been said before, but I really do believe that it's the most human of all instruments," says cellist Alisa Weilerstein. "It encompasses the entire spectrum of what the human voice can do from the deepest bass to the highest coloratura soprano. And it's capable of expressing, kind of empathizing, with some of the deepest and unexpressed emotions that people have. So that's one reason I felt that I could always speak through the cello, sometimes much better than I could speak verbally."

Weilerstein fell in love with the cello almost 30 years ago. Her father was first violin in the Cleveland Quartet, her mother a noted pianist. They were away performing and Alisa was spending the weekend with her grandmother. "I had chicken pox and she gave me a present, which was a string quartet of instruments. The cello was made out of a cereal box — Rice Krispies, actually — and the endpin was made from an old green toothbrush and the bow was a chopstick. I totally shunned the other instruments — I don't know why at the time, it was just a strong instinct, I wanted the cello."

Two years later, Alisa begged to take real cello lessons, and her star has been rising ever since. In 2000, she earned an Avery Fischer Career Grant, and in 2011 she won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Now, at age 31, Alisa has realized her childhood dream. "By the time I had a real cello in my hand, I knew what the Dvořák Concerto sounded like and I knew I wanted to play it," she says. "It was my ultimate dream to play it around the world to different audiences — it was my greatest ambition."

Alisa has been playing the Dvořák cello concerto around the world, and she recently recorded it with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic. "They play so beautifully, with such a warmth and depth and this music just flows right out of them in such a beautiful and natural way," she says. "We did record in studio but I was actually facing them the whole time so I could really engage everyone. Their approach also was so lyrical, so vocal. Oftentimes the tendency of all of us cellists when we're playing the Dvořák is to go for a more muscular attitude, I think. And hearing them play these lush melodies in such a lyrical, gorgeous way- it definitely influenced me."

Taking a more lyrical approach makes perfect sense since the composer includes fragments of a beautiful song within the concerto. Dvořák was secretly in love with his wife's sister, Alisa explains, and this song titled, "Leave Me Alone," was her favorite: "The next track on the album is the actual song itself, an arrangement of the song because I really wanted to tie this together. You hear this, of course, in the second movement and then in the last movement. It's so interesting because Dvořák had a different ending in mind when he was conceiving it at first. And then when he heard that his sister-in-law was dying, he completely changed the ending and had the cello really end … having these fragments of the song while it's dying down. And the concerto, with that in mind, really becomes kind of a tone poem — it's a hero's life. You hear the hero enter, you hear him fight battles, you hear him sing love songs and you hear the hero's death, ultimately. It ends on a flat line, the cello ends on a sigh. And then when the orchestra takes over, it's as if the soul is leaving the body. And the fact that the song inspired this incredible ending is something so beautiful."

What do you love about this concerto? I asked Alisa. "Oh, what do I not love is more the question! It is a masterpiece in every sense," she says. "It runs the gamut of emotions. It makes complete use of the cello's capabilities. It's so richly orchestrated and there are so many layers to find — every time I return to it, I find something new. And ultimately, it's just an incredibly moving piece and just so natural and really touching. I could sing its praises for … how long do you have?"

For this Dvořák recording Alisa chose pieces in which she really believed. Many in fact, stem from her childhood, like Silent Woods, the Rondo, and the gorgeous arrangement of "Going Home", from Dvořák's Symphony No. 9. "That arrangement really made me very happy because I think I listened to the 'New World' Symphony daily when I was a small child," Weilerstein says. "I always wanted to play the English horn so I could play that solo. And finally I got my wish — I got to play that melody."

On her latest recording of cello works by Dvořák, Alisa Weilerstein invites you to share in her childhood dream.

Alisa Weilerstein: Dvořák - Album Trailer


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