Cello virtuoso Alisa Weilerstein is always at the head of her class

Alisa Weilerstein is used to leading a double life.

As an accelerated high school student, she was already a concertizing cellist who lugged her unwieldy instrument on and off trains and planes. As a Columbia University undergrad she wrote philosophy papers while airborne, traveling from one performance venue to another.

But make that a triple life.

The 28-year-old New Yorker, growing toward a stellar career, is also diabetic and has been since age 9 — all of which makes her over-achievement understandably remarkable.

"I learned early how to do things efficiently," she says on the phone from Santa Barbara, with neither a trace of bravado nor a cry for compassion in her lively, candid account.

"But that doesn't mean it's easy. Any 24-7 condition, which this is, can be overwhelming. It's never away from you. On the road, eating in restaurants [which she's doing now as part of a 15-city recital tour], you don't have a lot of control. It's not like at home where you know what to eat and how to dose. But I've got it down."

Needless to say, this information is not exactly what performers in any field want their booking agents to know. In fact, it's only recently that Weilerstein has openly talked about and acted as a celebrity advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

"I never even told my manager until three years ago," she says, "because the perception of diabetes is that you're on dialysis or going blind or facing amputation. I wanted to prove I could have my music, my career and encourage other young people who were as scared as I was in the beginning."

Indeed, Weilerstein set that example of self-determination even as a pre-schooler. She was only 4 when her passion for music surfaced.

She begged repeatedly for a cello. So her grandmother, recruited to babysit on a weekend both parents were performing out of town, fashioned one from a Rice Krispies box and a toothbrush.

That was it. Shortly after Alisa's mother, Vivian (a professional pianist), and father, Donald (founding first violinist of the Cleveland Quartet), returned, they agreed to buy her a 16th-size cello to play around with like a toy. Dad wouldn't agree to lessons, though, believing that a young child should not be so reined in. Regardless, within a year she knew the major cello concertos by heart. The picture of a prodigy.

And there were other signs of enormous musical appetite.

"I remember lying under the piano when my mother practiced Beethoven's 32 Variations," she recalls with self-amusement. When she came to the last one I threw a tantrum — I didn't want it to end."

The tantrums stopped, of course, and to hear Weilerstein play with an orchestra, as she did last year with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was to understand how deeply inculcated is the chamber music ideal that surrounded her, "prenatally on," she says.

Even playing so well worn a piece as the Dvorák Cello Concerto, she managed to bring a delicately nuanced duet quality to the slow movement, weaving uncannily in and around each wind soloist and being heard at the softest level.

"All music should sound like that," she concedes. "It should be a debate, a close discussion, brainstorming. The Dvorák is the ultimate concerto. It has all the structuring and epic sweep of a symphony. It goes from ecstasy to tragedy to pathos. And every time out, there's something new to discover."

For others as well. When, during the mid-1990s, she spent a summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School, artistic administrator Ara Guzelimian discovered her "in an image I'll never forget," he says.

"There she was, in the darkened pit, playing 'Traviata' with the opera orchestra. My eye went right to her. What engagement and passion, bigness of spirit, powers of communication — all at the ripe old age of 13."

Even now, Guzelimian says, as dean of Juilliard and observing "a lot of determined kids," he doesn't see such "probing, restless intellect coupled with the gift that feeds her powerful communicativeness."

This week at Walt Disney Concept Hall, she'll play the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, fulfilling her love of all things Russian (she earned her bachelor's degree at Columbia in Russian history specializing in the Soviet Union).

But Weilerstein naturally reaches out to all music, especially contemporary works, because, as she says, "the composer is right there, you can ask him questions." In the case of Osvaldo Golijov's "Azul," which he invited her to play in 2007 at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival — Yo-Yo Ma had given the premiere — the composer wanted to significantly revise it.

In so doing "we bounced ideas off each other, and it was exciting, especially to see a composer's brain in action," she says, "but his last-minute style with the extended cadenza became kind of crazy."

Golijov, it is known, likes to involve the performer as he creates works, but in this case his collaborative cellist refuses to take any credit. "He says I was responsible for some of the writing. I wasn't."

Her admiring attitude doesn't stop with composers. When Weilerstein was still in kindergarten she listened nonstop to the recordings of the legendary British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, who died in 1987 at 42.

"I idolized her. So much so that at 12 I had to put those discs away or risk being seduced by her and copying her."

Du Pré was married to pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, who last year invited Weilerstein to play the Elgar Concerto — which he and his wife, with the Berlin Philharmonic, had famously recorded live.

A daunting prospect for Weilerstein? After all, she was to perform with him (and the Berliners) in Oxford, du Pré's home town, where it would have a TV simulcast and later be released on DVD.

"Yes and no," she says, explaining that once again she was on the glide path just behind Yo-Yo Ma. "He was the first cellist to play the work with Barenboim after du Pré's landmark recording with him — Daniel had avoided it for the 20 years since his wife had died. But what an honor for me."

Of course, the image of petite Weilerstein — "a whole foot shorter" than the towering du Pré, whose physical ownership of the cello was visible to all — cannot help but be noticed.

"It takes years of living with this big, uncomfortable instrument to make it your native language."

And it was always thus for her.


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