Cellist Alisa Weilerstein
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein

Her selections on the program are all by Bach and are his Cello Suites 1, 3 and 5. They will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at Cobb Great Hall in East Lansing.

Alisa Weilerstein has appeared around Michigan over her many years as a cellist — either as a soloist or with orchestras — but this month she is performing alone for the Wharton Center for Performing Arts.

Her selections on the program are all by Bach and are his Cello Suites 1, 3 and 5. They will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at Cobb Great Hall in East Lansing.

“I chose the Bach suites because there is no repertoire like it for solo cello or any instrument,” said Weilerstein, recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship. “The Bach suites, I think, come the closest to encapsulating life and one’s journey in life through music.

“I’m just very happy that finally this concert, canceled and rescheduled several times because of the pandemic, is finally happening. I’ve recorded these pieces in 2020.”

Weilerstein’s most recent performance in Michigan was with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). She presented a Barber concerto in 2020.

“Every performance I’ve had in Michigan I’ve really enjoyed, and my last experience there was just wonderful,” she recalled, describing early sessions with the DSO.

“I was finishing my senior year at Columbia University, and it was around the times of final exams and papers being due. I was a history major, and I remember having four concerts — Thursday at 8 p.m., Friday 11 in the morning and Friday and Saturday at 8.

“I had so many things due at the same time so basically I played the concert on Thursday night and wrote 10 pages that night. I stayed up until 3 in the morning. I woke up at 9:30 to be on stage at 11. I came back and rushed to do another paper and concert.”

She joked, “I just remember that whole time being this crazy blur fueled by adrenalin. The concerts went incredibly well, and I remember thinking maybe this is the way to play concerts.”

Weilerstein’s musical interests can be traced in part to dad, violinist Donald Weilerstein, and mom, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. The three used to perform together, but the parents have been doing more teaching and independent concerts.

“The cello is a kind of chameleon,” the musician said. “It has the widest range of any instrument from the deepest basso to the highest coloratura soprano. Composers seem to have a soft spot for the cello.

“We have some of the most special repertoire that there is. It gets the most beautiful and profound lines to play. It’s the most human sounding of instruments. It’s the closest to the voice.”

Weilerstein, entering her 40s, graduated from the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, studied at The Juilliard School and earned a history degree from Columbia University. She has performed in famed venues across America, Europe and Asia and has completed many recordings.

At the end of the month, she is introducing a commissioned performance project in Toronto.

“Over the pandemic, I did countless livestreams and, after a while, that got very old,” Weilerstein said. “I also did several recording projects and created a very large commissioned (work), which is going to be a multi-year project with thoughts about how we would come back together in the concert hall.

“It’s very much live music and called ‘Fragments.’ I commissioned 27 composers diverse in every way in terms of age, level of establishment, race, ethnicity and gender. They all wrote 10-minute long solo pieces for me.

“I’ve created six programs and also engaged a director. The first two programs are going to be unveiled this season. Three and four will come out the following season, and the entire budget will come out the season after that.”

Weilerstein is based in two homes — one in San Diego and the other in Montreal. She and husband, Rafael Payare, a conductor, work together on occasion as she considers themselves musically aligned. They have two daughters, ages 6 and under a year, and the older child plays the violin.

“I am encouraging my daughters in music and letting them find it independently,” she said. “Music needs to be part of their lives, for sure, and part of their education, but what they do with it is entirely up to them. They need to follow their hearts.”

Diagnosed before she was 10 with type 1 diabetes, Weilerstein supports causes leading to a cure.

“I started working with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation a little while ago,” she said. “We need to do everything we can to raise awareness of the potential devastating complications of type 1 diabetes and put efforts into finding a cure.

“At the same time, the message is a very positive one. With the right attitude and vigilantly managing of one’s blood sugar, it is completely possible to live the life that you always wanted to live. Here I am approaching middle age, and I am healthy and had two very healthy pregnancies. My career is exactly where I want it to be.”

Weilerstein, who had a bat mitzvah and has performed in Jerusalem, feels culturally very Jewish. She finds being able to pass down the traditions to her daughters a fantastic experience.

Alisa Weilerstein will perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at Cobb Great Hall, 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing. Tickets start at $21. Phone (800) WHARTON or contact whartoncenter.com.

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