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Young cellist leads double life

Taking a full load of classes as a college freshman is only part of Alisa Weilerstein's busy schedule; she is also in demand as a performer.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001

Last week, Alisa Weilerstein finished her first year at Columbia University in New York. The cellist undoubtedly had a busier freshman year than her classmates, because in addition to lectures to attend, papers to write and tests to take, Weilerstein had 43 concerts to play between August and May.

"I had the lightest full load I could take here, but it was still a full load, so it was definitely a very, very full year," she said. "I was in Europe for three weeks in February, and I sent in five papers by e-mail."

That month, Weilerstein also made her New York recital debut, playing at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall and receiving a rave review in the New York Times.

"She presented a difficult Romantic program calculated to make New York sit up and take notice, and she played it with an abundance of heightened emotion," wrote critic Anne Midgette.

This weekend, Alisa is featured with the Florida Orchestra, playing the solo in Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme. Also on the program, conducted by Jahja Ling, are Haydn's Symphony No. 88 and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. It is the last masterworks program of the season.

The 19-year-old cellist comes from a famous musical family, Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, and mother, pianist Vivian Hornick Weilerstein, are distinguished performers and professors at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

In fact, the three often play together as the Weilerstein Trio (Alisa's younger brother, Josh, is a violinist). On Alisa's CD debut for EMI Classics, her mother is the pianist in an appealing program of works by Paganini, Dvorak, Ginastera and de Falla, among others.

At Columbia, Alisa is leaning toward a major in history. It is unusual for a musician of her caliber to be taking a non-musical degree, but she never really considered going to a conservatory such as the Juilliard School, also in New York.

"I knew I wanted to be in New York City, but I didn't want to go to Juilliard exclusively, because I find it incredibly constricting, not really conducive to learning," she said. "I'd find it very isolating to go exclusively to a conservatory. I kind of grew up with it, since both my parents are musicians, and I was ready for something different."

She studies with Joel Krosnick, cellist with the Juilliard String Quartet, who teaches at Juilliard.

When she was just 13, Alisa played Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations with the Cleveland Orchestra.

"Things definitely have become easier technically," she said of changes in her approach to the work now that she's all of 19. "I've grown stronger. My concentration is better. I may be playing with more of an intellectual influence than playing so instinctively."

Playing the same work three times over a weekend, Weilerstein knows from experience that the performances can vary.

"I usually find that the second performance is the hardest," she said. "Maybe because you feel like you've done it once, then come in with a sort of overconfident outlook. Some nights it's incredibly easy, and then other nights, you have to really concentrate and think about every phrase. It's always a tremendous amount of fun for me to perform -- I've never had a performance I didn't have a blast in -- but some performances take more concentration, and it's usually the second one where that happens."

With her busy schedule this past year, Weilerstein practiced wherever and whenever she could, lugging her white cello case around the Columbia campus. Sometimes she practiced in her dorm room.

"My neighbors were quite accommodating, actually," said Alisa, whose neighbor across the hall was another freshman celebrity, Julia Stiles, one of the stars in the movie State and Main.


Cellist Alisa Weilerstein is the soloist in Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme with the Florida Orchestra. Concerts are 8 p.m. Friday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Tickets: $20-$38. (813) 286-2403.

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