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Cellist Weilerstein finds personality in each instrument

NEW YORK: Alisa Weilerstein built a reputation as a premier cellist playing an instrument that would be considered top-notch by any standard. But recently, she has found one to top it.

When she took in her 1790 William Foster cello for routine maintenance at a New York repair shop earlier this year, she came across a 1723 Montagnana which she described as “one of the best cellos I have ever seen.”

The 32-year-old, who had been playing the English-made William Forster since she was 16, said she had long been cautious about entering dealings for such priceless instruments but set her sights on the Venetian treasure.

The switch has forced Weilerstein to learn the ways of the Montagnana.

“It’s like comparing a BMW and a Ferrari. Both are very good cars. It’s like apples and oranges,” Weilerstein told AFP in New York, where she recently delivered rousing performances of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.

“This might sound very far out to say, but every instrument has a very distinct personality in the way it responds to touch, to pressure, to climate even,” she said.

Weilerstein said that she needed hours to understand the new instrument — especially as one of her first public performances on it was Prokofiev’s demanding Symphony-Concerto for cello and orchestra.

“I actually figured out that I don’t need to work as hard on this instrument. If I did, sort of, physically work on it, it would shut down.

“It’s like if you’re punching a person rather than asking them to do something — if you punch someone, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

– ‘Visceral impact’ –

The Montagnana is a significant step up from Weilerstein’s first cello, assembled from boxes of Rice Krispies cereal when she was two with her grandmother’s help.

Raised in Cleveland to a musical family, Weilerstein has won acclaim and been described as a new generation’s cello superstar through performances marked not only for their technical mastery but for their intense feeling.

Weilerstein in 2011 received a MacArthur “genius” grant and in April her debut album, “Elgar and Carter Cello Concertos,” won the prestigious classical Recording of the Year from BBC Music Magazine.

The jury said the album — which Weilerstein recorded with the Staatskapelle Berlin under conductor Daniel Barenboim — marked the first time in years that Edward Elgar’s celebrated cello concerto “made this kind of visceral impact.”

Weilerstein has also maintained a punishing traveling schedule, with performances scheduled through May across Europe and North America as well as Tokyo and Taipei.

– Gauging composers’ intent –

On her new album for the Decca label, “Solo,” Weilerstein interprets cello work by Zoltan Kodaly but also goes in a more experimental direction by performing Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s “Seven Tunes Heard in China.”

Weilerstein swings from her rich cello to emulations of the distinctive, warbling sound of Chinese folk music. On one tune, Weilerstein plays the cello with a guitar pick and on another song, meant to represent Tibetan drums, she taps the instrument.

“I just had a wonderful time with this. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures and indigenous instruments,” she said.

Weilerstein said her recording was a surprise to Sheng, who wrote “Seven Tunes Heard in China” two decades ago for Yo-Yo Ma.

To Weilerstein’s relief, she said that Sheng praised the unexpected recording. But even the thought of seeking feedback would be out of the question for most of her works, whose creators are long dead.

Western classical artists, she said, tend to be stubbornly faithful to markings that indicate composers’ intent.

Working with living composers was a reminder that even the original artists themselves changed ideas over time on how their works ought to be played, she said.

“I wish I could have asked Beethoven so many questions — before he went deaf,” Weilerstein said.

“He was supposed to have been a very difficult guy, but I would really have loved to have heard him play his own music.” -AFP

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