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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Oct 13, 2016

Q&A with cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Alisa Weilerstein (Decca/ © Harald Hoffmann)

American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is a genius.  Actually, she’s a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, but everyone calls those grants the “genius award,” and in Weilerstein’s case, the term fits.  Her performances are the result of an exceptional artistic impulse and intelligence – expressive, and deeply committed.   Weilerstein lives in Berlin with her husband, the Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare, and their young daughter, who often tours with her and who will be backstage while her mother joins the SFS to play the Schumann Cello Concerto. 

Q.  The Schumann concerto is an unusually constructed work.  What attracted you to this piece?

A. In a way, it’s the most Romantic cello concerto that we have: so vulnerable and personal.  It also has this deep, yearning lyricism.  There’s also that passage in the second movement that’s a duet with the orchestra’s principal cellist.  That’s really lovely. 

Q. You’re performing the piece with the conductor Pablo Heras-Casado.  The two of you have worked together quite a bit, both in concerts and on recordings.  Do you develop a kind of musical shorthand from working that closely with someone?

Weilerstein-6-(c)-Jamie-Jung-(1).jpgA.  Of course, and he’s also become a good friend.  We’ve worked together so much that we now have a great musical rapport.   With the recording we just did of the two Shostakovich cello concertos, there was a three-year gestation period because there were so many logistics to work out, and it took a long time to put together.  But yes, we like working together, and we try to work together often.

Q. You have a very close relationship to Venezuela, and especially their acclaimed music education program El Sistema.  But with that country deep in crisis now, El Sistema has become a little bit of a political football.

A. Yes, it’s very unfortunate.  El Sistema is probably the only working organization right now.  Literally.  And I would not want to take that away from the people who are benefiting from it.  I taught and played in El Sistema; my husband studied in El Sistema – he grew up in El Sistema.  The children in the nucleos, the schools, are not only learning an instrument, but they’re learning to be a kind and sympathetic member of society by interacting with other children and making music together.  And I strongly believe in the effect that music – not just playing music, but making music together – has on children. 

Q. At Michelle Obama’s invitation, you played for the First Family in the White House.  Now that the Obama era is coming to an end, what do you see as the state of music and arts education here in the States?


A. I’m in a wait-and-see mode.  We live in a very big country and there are places where you see promising signs of programs actually modeled on El Sistema.  You have other places where they say music and arts are not important.  I think that’s extremely misguided, and it’s not because I’m an artist myself.  The evidence could not be more overwhelming that this kind of program enhances childrens’ IQs; but more important, as I said before, it helps them be sympathetic and kind individuals, to make a contribution to society.   

If you go:

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the San Francisco Symphony in performances of Mozart’s Symphony No. 29, Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7 and Schumann’s Cello Concerto featuring Alisa Weilerstein, October 19-22 at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864-6000

Click here to purchase tickets!