Four years ago, Joshua Weilerstein came to Los Angeles as a 23-year-old graduate student to be one of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Dudamel fellows — a highly sought apprenticeship for young conductors.
This week Weilerstein returns to L.A. as a maestro in his own right after finishing a stint as assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic and then, in November, winning the job of artistic director for the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne in Switzerland.
Speaking at a cafe near his old place of work, Lincoln Center, Weilerstein exudes a relaxed, no-big-deal manner for someone who just taught a class at Juilliard (stepping in for Itzhak Perlman) and is about to dash off to Texas later in the day to make his debut with the Dallas Symphony — to say nothing of being handed the keys to a Swiss orchestra with more than 70 years of history and a $10-million budget.
"I conducted a concert there last June, and it just clicked right away," he says. "I felt really comfortable with them, and I think they felt very comfortable with me.... It was just a really special connection."
As earning the Lausanne post suggests, Weilerstein is much in demand as a conductor. After leading the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl last year, Times critic Mark Swed wrote that Weilerstein "may not yet have bestselling recordings on the market, but he is one of the most promising podium presences of his generation."
On Saturday at the Alex Theatre in Glendale and Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall, Weilerstein will lead the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in a program that includes Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony and Saint-Saëns' cello concerto featuring soloist Narek Hakhnazaryan.
"The Mozart is something I've done a lot — not to mention it's one of the greatest pieces ever written. I like doing it on debuts," he says, explaining how the LACO program was selected. Hakhnazaryan suggested the Saint-Saëns.
"My attitude is the soloist is the boss," Weilerstein says. "The conductor gets the other part of the concert to themselves."
Weilerstein says he and Hakhnazaryan go way back — they went to New England Conservatory together — and after speaking with Weilerstein for a while, it seems as if he has ties to everyone in the classical music world. When asked why he came out for this weekend's show, he cites the chamber orchestra's music director. "I've known Jeffrey Kahane for a long time. He's sort of a friend of the family."
His family is a musical dynasty that includes his father, Donald Weilerstein, a violinist and founder of the Cleveland Quartet, and his mother, Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, a noted chamber musician and faculty member at New England Conservatory. Alisa Weilerstein, Joshua's sister, is a MacArthur grant winner and cellist of international fame with a recording contract at Decca.
"It's been fun to watch his progress. I knew him from the time he was 6 or 7 years old," says Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic music director who hired Weilerstein. "My father and Josh's father were roommates and close friends at Juilliard … but when I knew Josh, he was this basketball-obsessed, brilliant little kid."
Weilerstein eventually dropped basketball and picked up a violin. He went on tour with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra (the ensemble's first non-Venezuelan guest member), where he got to know L.A. Phil music and artistic director Gustavo Dudamel. But at conservatory he took up the baton as well, and in 2009 he won first prize and the audience prize at the Malko Competition for Young Conductors in Copenhagen.
"You have to figure out right away what the orchestra needs from you," Weilerstein says about conducting. "I have strong ideas, but I'm not going to be a dictator about them. I don't feel that's a good way to work. I'm very interested in the psychology of orchestras."
Weilerstein says his time as a violinist in orchestras helps him be attuned to musicians' needs.
"I think that musicians grow up and are trained, all the way through conservatory education, to be independent, to play with your own personal sound," he says. "And then you're suddenly in the middle of the second violin section. It's a wonderful thing, don't get me wrong, it's a great job, but I think it's easy to suddenly lose all sense that you have a say in things."
That's a challenge for musicians, he says, "and conductors would do well to understand those challenges."
One mentor is conductor Hugh Wolff, who said he saw Weilerstein as a promising talent before his first lesson.
"That's a fairly rare thing. He has a physical command that you really can't teach," says Wolff, who tutored Weilerstein at the conservatory. "And what Josh has that's rare at his age is the ability to run an efficient, collegial and musical rehearsal. He has a very good sense of how to express ideas in a positive way and knows how to get musicians to go along with him."
Despite his diplomatic skills, Weilerstein admires conductors Carlos Kleiber and Leonard Bernstein. "Yes, they were dictators — but in a sort of benevolent way," he says, laughing. "My friends are trying to change this attitude though, the cliché of the conductor as a dictator who is megalomaniacal and takes over everything. I don't know any of my colleagues who are like that now. There are still some of the older generation that are like that, and that's fine, I don't think there's anything really wrong with that. I just can't do that."
In addition to changing people's perspective about the role of the conductor, Weilerstein also wants to push boundaries in repertory. Also on the LACO program is a work by 35-year-old composer Joseph Hallman. The moody, 17-minute piece is titled "imagined landscapes: six lovecraftian elsewheres," and it's inspired by the macabre writings of author H.P. Lovecraft.
"I'm really happy to do the piece," Weilerstein says, "and I'm really grateful to the orchestra for agreeing to do it. He's not a known composer, and he needs more exposure. And I think the audience will enjoy it."
Ultimately Weilerstein feels his job as a leader of an orchestra is to communicate the power of music. "I think people are looking for experiences," he says. "I feel like what I would love to do is broaden the audience of classical music, and not just Mozart and Beethoven but really contemporary music."
Weilerstein is also an advocate for composers such as Christopher Rouse, Jonny Greenwood and Valentyn Sylvestrov.
"I don't really see why John Williams can't be on the same program as Beethoven," Weilerstein says emphatically. "A really good example is when the New York Phil did 'Pixar in Concert.' The audience was completely sold out, packed with people my age and younger, and I thought, 'That's great, I'm so happy that they came.' But if they don't see the connection between 'Pixar in Concert' and Beethoven — or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, or Shostakovich — then they don't come back. I think finding a way to bridge that is like my mission."