New York Magazine called Alisa Weilerstein “Yo-Yo Ma’s heiress apparent as sovereign of the American cello.” Gifted from a young age, her music career skyrocketed despite a childhood diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Awarding her a “genius” grant when she was 29, the MacArthur Foundation cited Weilerstein’s “emotionally resonant performances” and ability to combine “technical precision with impassioned musicianship.” Now at 33 she is an internationally-lauded performer and champion of contemporary music. A conversation with cellist Alisa Weilerstein on her new album, fighting type 1 diabetes, and the perks and perils of being young, American and female in the classical music world.

Guests

  • Alisa Weilerstein Cellist; 2011 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant recipient; celebrity advocate, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation

Alisa Weilerstein: Dvořák Cello Concerto - I. Allegro (excerpt)

Alisa Weilerstein plays Bach's Cello Suite No.3, Gigue

Weilerstein and Barnatan - Rachmaninov - Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Celebrated cellist, Alisa Weilerstein is young, female and American, things she's regularly reminded of in her life as a performer. Complicating her more than 100 days a year of international touring is management of her Type 1 diabetes. But Weilerstein seems keen as ever to grow her name in the classical music world most recently with a new recording of cello sonatas with pianist Inon Barnatan.

  • 11:07:44

    MS. DIANE REHMAlisa Weilerstein joins us from the NPR studios in New York. And throughout the hour, we'll take your calls, comments, 800-433-8850. Send your email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Alisa, how good to see you.

  • 11:08:09

    MS. ALISA WEILERSTEINWonderful to see you, too. Thank you for having me on.

  • 11:08:11

    REHMOh, I'm so glad to have you on. You know, I understand you were a very, very young child when you kind of fell in love with the cello. Tell us about listening to Don Giovanni.

  • 11:08:32

    WEILERSTEINWell, both my parents are wonderful musicians. My father is a violinist and my mother's a pianist. And so, actually, I listen to -- they were the first musicians I ever heard playing, you know, music in the house and rehearsing. But one of my sort of pre-bedtime rituals with my father started when I was around 2 years old and we would listen to the commendatory scene of Don Giovanni. So I didn't know what the subject matter was about at all, but I just fell in love with the music.

  • 11:09:12

    WEILERSTEINAnd apparently, I asked him every single night before I went to sleep, I wanted to hear that and I didn't really have any interest in the rest of the opera for some reason. So this was my introduction to Mozart operas.

  • 11:09:27

    REHMSo it really was the music that drew you in...

  • 11:09:34

    WEILERSTEINAbsolutely.

  • 11:09:34

    REHM...nothing to the story, but rather...

  • 11:09:39

    WEILERSTEINNo. I mean, I think he gave me a very G-rated version of what the story actually was and what that scene was about, of course. This is the scene when the commendatory finally drags Don Giovanni off to hell and, you know, I had no idea, so. But I just knew that I loved the music.

  • 11:09:57

    REHMAnd what about the cello was it that specifically got to your heart?

  • 11:10:07

    WEILERSTEINAt that age, it's very hard to say, but it was sort of an absolute thing and very intuitive thing. In fact, my very first "cello" in quotation marks, if you will, was made out of a cereal box. And so when I was around 2 and a half or 3, I came down with chicken pox and, you know, of course, my whole family knew into music I was, judging by the Don Giovanni sessions.

  • 11:10:40

    REHMEven at that age, yeah.

  • 11:10:42

    WEILERSTEINYes. At that age. And both my parents were actually on tour and so my grandmother was taking care of me and she made a string quartet of instruments, so two violins, a viola and a cello, out of cereal boxes. And the cello was a Rice Crispies box so she drew the finger board and the F holes, you know, with crayons or something. And the end pin, which the metal spike at the bottom normally, it was actually an old green toothbrush. So she was very resourceful. And the bow was a chopstick.

  • 11:11:18

    WEILERSTEINSo for some reason, I was only interested in that instrument, was not interested in the others. So when my parents came back from their tours and started rehearsing and practicing in the house, I got very excited because I thought I could participate in these rehearsals. So they put on...

  • 11:11:40

    REHMWith your Rice Crispies box.

  • 11:11:41

    WEILERSTEINCorrect. Until I realized that it wasn't making any sound so I got very frustrated. So when I was around 4, I said to my mom, mommy, I want a cello and a cello teacher. And she said, well, you're a bit young. But I kept asking. And so I got my first real cello -- it was only -- of course, it was 16th size, about the size of a viola.

  • 11:12:03

    REHMRight.

  • 11:12:03

    WEILERSTEINAnd but that was my first cello that actually made a sound. And I think -- she tells me now that she asked me at that time, you know, why the cello? And I said, because that's -- it was just completely instinctive and that was -- but it was also absolute. I knew I wanted the cello and nothing else.

  • 11:12:26

    REHMSo when did you actually begin studying the cello?

  • 11:12:31

    WEILERSTEINI was around 4 and a half years old when I started.

  • 11:12:35

    REHMBoy, that seems young for that particular instrument.

  • 11:12:40

    WEILERSTEINYeah. But they make little ones and there are remarkable teachers for young children. And I was just very fascinated by the whole thing and it was just a really fun thing to do, as far as I was concerned at that time. And my parents' philosophy really was to kind of let me fall in love with the instrument first and then the discipline of the craft could come a little bit later. So I know of ran wild with the instrument for a couple of years before I started working very, very hard on technical things and so, yeah.

  • 11:13:17

    REHMSo your parents were kind of musical royalty, were they not?

  • 11:13:27

    WEILERSTEINThey are really wonderful musicians, yes.

  • 11:13:30

    REHMAnd now, you're even playing some trios with them?

  • 11:13:35

    WEILERSTEINYes. And, in fact, we started doing that together very early on when I was even near 5. We started playing trios that have very uncomplicated cello parts, so some early Haydn trios where it's really more kind of like a piano concerto with sort of string accompaniments as it were. And especially the cello parts very much sort of a continual kind of part so I could play it, even though I could barely play the cello at all at that stage. But that was a really fun thing to do.

  • 11:14:07

    WEILERSTEINAnd that kind of grew with years and then -- and now we do maybe one or two concerts per year together. That's about all we have time for.

  • 11:14:13

    REHMOh, wonderful.

  • 11:14:15

    WEILERSTEINBut it's, yeah, it's still a lot of fun.

  • 11:14:17

    REHMAlisa, where did you grow up?

  • 11:14:21

    WEILERSTEINI was born in Rochester, New York, and then, when I was 7, the family moved to Cleveland and then I lived most of my adult life in New York City.

  • 11:14:30

    REHMI see. So normal school or special?

  • 11:14:36

    WEILERSTEINNormal. And also, a bit special. Between the time I was 13 and 18, I went to Cleveland Heights High School in the morning and so I crammed all of my academics, you know, before 1 o'clock and then I would go to the Cleveland Institute of Music. They have a program that's called Young Artist Program for -- it's a conservatory, but this is a special program for, say, more precocious high school students. So I could take conservatory classes and lessons and also have more time to practice.

  • 11:15:13

    WEILERSTEINSo that was great. And then, I went to -- sorry.

  • 11:15:17

    REHMBut what about time for just silly play and being with friends? Where was that?

  • 11:15:29

    WEILERSTEINIt was very much part of my childhood. It was very important to me and also important to my family that my childhood would be as, you know, for lack of a better word, normal as possible. So I had a very active social life and, you know, we did sort of normal activities as a family. We would, you know, go to movies, just sort of veg out. We would, you know, take walks and, you know, my parents' philosophy is that I would be a good person first and then that was the most important thing.

  • 11:16:05

    WEILERSTEINAnd then, to be a good artist was a very distant second. So it was -- to be a well-rounded person was always the number one kind of goal, so.

  • 11:16:18

    REHMSo you went onto college, but majored in Russian history.

  • 11:16:24

    WEILERSTEINYeah.

  • 11:16:26

    REHMTell me why.

  • 11:16:28

    WEILERSTEINI went to Columbia University and because I had had a very, very strong musical education growing up and had been surrounded by so many musicians, I decided that I really wanted to, you know, explore other fields. And I'd always been interested in other fields and always had read a lot and everything. And so I was -- I had also fallen in love with Russian literature and Russian music and had a sort of particular obsession with Shostakovich and Prokofiev when I was in high school and so I really wanted to study the context, essentially. So that was how I gravitated toward that.

  • 11:17:08

    REHMSo I want to take you back to that first professional debut. You were, what, 6 years old?

  • 11:17:22

    WEILERSTEINYeah. You mean, the one with my parents at the (word?) festival.

  • 11:17:25

    REHMYeah, right. Right. What did that feel like?

  • 11:17:32

    WEILERSTEINWell, I loved nothing more than performing at that time and I mean, of course now as well. This is what I really love to do, but it was always that way. And I was just very, very excited. It was a really fun thing for me. And then, I remember getting on stage about to start playing and then I saw some people giggling in the audience. And I couldn't understand why.

  • 11:18:00

    REHMAll right. We'll find out why after a short break. Stay with us.

  • 11:20:02

    REHMAnd if you've just joined us, cellist Alisa Weilerstein is with me. She joins us from the NPR studios in New York. We're going to be talking with her, hearing her music and, especially, Alisa, hearing music from your new album. Tell me about this. It's with pianist and partner Inon Barnatan -- Barnatan -- playing both Chopin and Rachmaninov. Tell us about how this album came to be.

  • 11:20:46

    WEILERSTEINSure. Well, Inon Barnatan is a great friend and fantastic musical partner. We've actually been playing together since 2008. And the Chopin sonata, which is I think the second piece on the album, or third, was the very first piece that we played together in concert. And so a couple of years ago we decided that we wanted to really put something down on disc, you know, to put down in sort of a more permanent way. And so the first thing that we really wanted to do was choose two pieces that we really have this kind of visceral, almost primal connection to.

  • 11:21:23

    REHMSure.

  • 11:21:24

    WEILERSTEINAnd so the Rachmaninov and Chopin sonatas certainly fit in that category. And they're both, you know, these really great, romantic masterpieces. And they also happen to be written by two composers who primarily wrote for the piano. But this -- so these pieces are real exceptions to their normal output.

  • 11:23:09

    REHMAlisa, tell me what it takes to be in sync with a musician in the way that you and Inon have had to be on this recording?

  • 11:23:26

    WEILERSTEINIt's actually much more difficult than one might think. And it's even harder to kind of find somebody that you really feel naturally in sync with. And that was -- that's one of the things, I think, that makes our partnership so very special, is that from the very first notes we played together, it was almost an eerie kind of connection and sort of a mutual understanding, which allows a real kind of spontaneity on stage and also in the recording studio. And the challenge in the recording studio, you know, when you take -- when you do take after take after take, is to try to recreate that kind of concert atmosphere, to recreate the sort of the joy in the moment and the adrenaline and everything else.

  • 11:24:11

    WEILERSTEINAnd, you know, when you have somebody that has, you know, sort of similar priorities and a sort of similar goal, it makes it that much easier. And it also presents its own challenges. Because, I mean, we just kind of challenge each other and kind of, you know, play off of each other...

  • 11:24:28

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:24:28

    WEILERSTEIN...that sort of thing. But, yeah, it takes -- so it takes a natural affinity, I think. And it also takes a lot of -- there's no substitute for time either. I mean, we've been playing together for seven years.

  • 11:24:39

    REHMAh.

  • 11:24:40

    WEILERSTEINAnd so I think it's -- it would have been a very different experience to have recorded, you know, if we had only been playing for six months together, as much as a natural affinity as we have.

  • 11:24:54

    REHMAlisa, you mentioned adrenaline. And, of course, that brings me to the question about managing diabetes. You were diagnosed with it at what age?

  • 11:25:10

    WEILERSTEINI was diagnosed the month before my 10th birthday.

  • 11:25:13

    REHMAnd how did you feel at that time? And how did they finally figure out that you had diabetes?

  • 11:25:26

    WEILERSTEINWell, I had the classic symptoms. I was constantly thirsty. I was losing weight. I've always been a kind of high-energy person and I was sort of losing energy, which concerned my parents quite a lot. And so they took me to the doctor. But I wasn't really feeling sick. So, I mean, because they, you know, they knew me very well and so that they knew something was not quite right. So I went to the doctor and they tested for, you know, for extra sugar. And then I was send straight to the emergency room because my sugar was sky high.

  • 11:26:09

    WEILERSTEINAnd then I was, actually, I was hospitalized for a week, not because I was particularly sick -- it wasn't that far along, I mean, there are some children, unfortunately, who are in a much sort of more dire, sort of, acute state -- but it was, there was just so much to learn. It's, you know, type 1, I mean, my sort of message in talking about type 1 diabetes is that one can do anything with this condition. One can be, you know, you can have any career that you want. You can, you know, live a very, very long and healthy life. But, you have to take care of yourself. And taking care of type 1 diabetes is a kind of full-time job in itself.

  • 11:26:52

    REHMWhat does that mean?

  • 11:26:55

    WEILERSTEINWell, type 1 diabetes -- only 10 percent of all diabetes cases are actually type 1s. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, where the brain essentially shuts off the beta cells in the pancreas, which make insulin. So I do not make any insulin at all. Without insulin, you can't digest food properly. You can't use food for energy. So essentially, one cannot live without insulin. And, you know, so basically the body sort of slowly starves without it. So I had to -- so on the most basic level, I had to learn how to inject insulin and to test my blood sugar and to know what the values meant, to know how to, you know, how to kind of juggle food, the blood sugar values and the insulin doses.

  • 11:27:47

    WEILERSTEINAnd so, of course, my parents had to learn all of that and then I had to learn all of this, so that I could be independent from them as well. So it started out as kind of a, very much a team effort, especially between me and my mom. We would sort of, you know, juggle all of those things together, of course in conjunction with my doctors. But the other very challenging thing about type 1 diabetes -- and any type 1 diabetic will tell you -- is that it's very much a self-management disease.

  • 11:28:17

    REHMHmm.

  • 11:28:18

    WEILERSTEINYou really have to know what you're doing. And so we did. It was a very, very steep learning curve but we did it. And it was -- the way my whole family went about it, and I give my parents enormous credit for this, was -- there was no sort of, you know, self pitying or...

  • 11:28:36

    REHMSure.

  • 11:28:37

    WEILERSTEINIt was just, sort of, okay...

  • 11:28:38

    REHMSure.

  • 11:28:39

    WEILERSTEIN...this is what we have to deal with.

  • 11:28:40

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:28:41

    WEILERSTEINLet's tackle this practically and then go on with your life. And so I actually -- they actually brought my cello to the hospital a couple of times. So I practiced there, which was great. And...

  • 11:28:51

    REHMSounds like you.

  • 11:28:55

    WEILERSTEINNot so surprising perhaps.

  • 11:28:57

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:28:58

    WEILERSTEINBut the other thing, which I -- which was really essential for me, was to understand exactly what was happening to my body and why it was not working the way it was supposed to. And that it wasn't my fault, I didn't do anything wrong, I didn't do anything to deserve it. And, you know, it's just something unlucky that happens.

  • 11:29:19

    REHMAnd that is surely a message that you must give to other children...

  • 11:29:26

    WEILERSTEINAbsolutely.

  • 11:29:26

    REHM...other adults who've experienced that. But what about your international travel? Doesn't that make it more complicated?

  • 11:29:37

    WEILERSTEINSure. Well, the first thing I would say is, I mean, I don't really remember too much of life without it. So, I mean, I'm very, very used to having it. However, anyone who doesn't have type 1 diabetes, if they actually see my suitcase and the amount of stuff that I have to travel with. I mean, I virtually travel with a pharmacy. Type 1 diabetes is actually the most expensive chronic disease to treat, just because of the amount of equipment we all need.

  • 11:30:06

    WEILERSTEINSo there are, of course, there are, you know, for people who are taking injections, who aren't on insulin-pump therapy, there are the, you know, this plethora of syringes you have to take. So, of course, there's also the insulin. Then there's the insulin pump. There you have -- and infusion sets, you know, the needle that administers the insulin. Then, of course, you have the testing supplies, so you can test your blood sugar to know where you are, and that stuff.

  • 11:30:28

    REHMHow in the world do you get through security these days?

  • 11:30:33

    WEILERSTEINI've been pretty lucky so far.

  • 11:30:35

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:30:36

    WEILERSTEINI mean, of course, I travel with a prescription from my doctor...

  • 11:30:38

    REHMSure.

  • 11:30:38

    WEILERSTEIN...in case I have to explain anything.

  • 11:30:39

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:30:40

    WEILERSTEINBut I do think, actually, most TSA agents, in fact, do know what an insulin pump looks like. And I've very, very rarely gotten suspicious looks for it, so.

  • 11:30:51

    REHMWell, I...

  • 11:30:51

    WEILERSTEINLet's just hope that continues. Crossing fingers.

  • 11:30:53

    REHM...do congratulate you for dealing with the issue as you have...

  • 11:30:58

    WEILERSTEINThank you.

  • 11:30:58

    REHM...and for publicizing so that other people know what it's all about.

  • 11:31:06

    WEILERSTEINThank you.

  • 11:31:07

    REHMHow is your health now?

  • 11:31:10

    WEILERSTEINMy health is excellent.

  • 11:31:11

    REHMGood.

  • 11:31:12

    WEILERSTEINI am keeping, you know, an extremely close watch on my blood sugar. And some of the new technologies have helped enormously in doing that. You know, the insulin pump is remarkably more convenient than the old therapies that used to be. And there's also a new way to measure blood sugar, which is much more accurate and much more thorough, which can prevent some dangerous low blood sugars and...

  • 11:31:42

    REHMI see.

  • 11:31:42

    WEILERSTEIN...yeah, that sort of thing. And especially (word?)

  • 11:31:45

    REHMSo, turning away from diabetes now...

  • 11:31:48

    WEILERSTEINYes.

  • 11:31:49

    REHM...to your cello.

  • 11:31:51

    WEILERSTEINYes.

  • 11:31:51

    REHMHow important is the cello you have to you?

  • 11:31:58

    WEILERSTEINWell, extremely important. I've actually, for the past year and a half, I've been playing on a wonderful Montagnana cello from 1723. Before that, I was playing on a William Forster English cello from 1790. But this Montagnana cello which I've been playing on is just -- I don't have enough superlatives to describe it. It's -- it has a huge, multi-dimensional, wonderful sound. And it can, you know, I play repertoire that spans 400 years, from Bach to contemporary music, and it can do anything. It's a real -- it's a perfect chameleon. So it's my traveling companion. My boy that's always with me, so.

  • 11:32:44

    REHMSounds like my little puppy. What could I say?

  • 11:32:48

    WEILERSTEINExactly.

  • 11:32:48

    REHMI can't be without him.

  • 11:32:50

    WEILERSTEINYeah. Yeah, yeah.

  • 11:32:52

    REHMBut the cello becomes what allows you to express yourself in precisely the way you want to. We've got lots of callers. And we're going to open the phones in just a few minutes. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." There is another piece I'd like to hear, and that's the third movement of the Rachmaninov cello Sonata from your new album. Tell us a little about this.

  • 11:33:34

    WEILERSTEINOh, this is probably my favorite movement of the Rachmaninov Sonata. It's this little gem which is just -- it's just heartbreaking. And you can hear the kind of -- the harmonies pushing and pulling and all of the shadows and the interplay between the instruments, kind of, in the best way and the strongest way, I think, in this movement, of the entire piece, so.

  • 11:33:58

    WEILERSTEINI think probably almost anyone who plays this piece would tell you that their movement is their favorite.

  • 11:34:04

    REHMYou know, it's so interesting, because our engineer today is a cellist.

  • 11:34:12

    WEILERSTEINYes.

  • 11:34:12

    REHMAnd he is delighted to be on this program.

  • 11:35:34

    REHMI must tell you, Alisa, that of all the instruments, the cello is the one that brings tear to my eyes. My favorite piece of music of all times is the Brahms Double Concerto.

  • 11:35:55

    WEILERSTEINOh.

  • 11:35:56

    REHMHave you ever played that?

  • 11:35:58

    WEILERSTEINI -- in fact, I played it yesterday.

  • 11:36:00

    REHMOh, my gosh. I wish I'd been there.

  • 11:36:02

    WEILERSTEINIt's very funny you should say it. Yeah. In San Diego, in fact, yeah.

  • 11:36:05

    REHMReally?

  • 11:36:06

    WEILERSTEINYeah, yeah. Yeah.

  • 11:36:08

    REHMYou (word?) piece.

  • 11:36:09

    WEILERSTEINOh, I love it. You know, you have fantastic taste. That's one of my favorite pieces to play also.

  • 11:36:15

    REHMIt really is absolutely gorgeous. If you were to pick up another cello, would you feel the same way about the music you're playing, as you do on this one?

  • 11:36:33

    WEILERSTEINI would feel the same way about the music. But I would not necessarily feel the same way about my own ability to express what I want to express. And even when I first picked up this cello, I mean, it was also a kind of instant connection, a very deep connection I had with it. But it's -- I still feel like I'm just scratching the surface of what the cello can -- the instrument actually can do. Because it's truly, truly one of those fine instruments. I can't think of something that would be better for me, personally, actually.

  • WEILERSTEINAnd if you've just joined us, the beautiful music you've been hearing has been performed by Alisa Weilerstein. She joins us from an NPR studio in New York. I gather, Alisa, you took the red eye from the West Coast to be with us…

  • 11:40:26

    WEILERSTEINYes.

  • 11:40:26

    REHM…today. And I'm just delighted about that.

  • 11:40:30

    WEILERSTEINOh, it was my pleasure. Thank you.

  • 11:40:31

    REHMWe have a couple of emails asking about your Americanism and whether you find yourself running into obstacles as an American when touring. The emailer Catherine says, "I've heard from other musical friends that they are sometimes treated differently because of their nationality. Perhaps Europeans believing that Americans don't understand the great traditions of Europe."

  • 11:41:16

    WEILERSTEINThat's -- it can happen, yes. And, I mean, I think the last sentence of the email probably sums it up pretty well. It's that in some circles. And I wouldn't say this is generally at all. But it's happened maybe a few times where there are certain people who may not trust that -- well, if you were not born here, then why would you understand our traditions, if you weren't brought up with our traditions. That sort of thing. And I've just tried to train myself not to pay too much attention to this kind of thing, yeah.

  • 11:41:51

    REHMYeah, I understand that. But now…

  • 11:41:54

    WEILERSTEINYeah.

  • 11:41:54

    REHM…what about the MacArthur Genius Award? Does that not play into people's thinking about you?

  • 11:42:05

    WEILERSTEINI'm, well, in Europe, I'm honestly not so sure whether it plays into it at all.

  • 11:42:12

    REHMThey even know about it, yeah.

  • 11:42:16

    WEILERSTEINBut, no, honestly, I try to -- I really try to kind of block that out. There's a lot of noise, especially when, you know, you're -- when one is on stage all the time. There are lots of opinions and lots of, you know, assumptions that people make. And, honestly, the best you can do is just be the best artist you can be. And, you know, just be true to one's self and be true to the music. And I know that sounds sort of like a cop-out answer, but honestly, that's what I try to do most of the time.

  • 11:42:46

    REHMAnd what about that MacArthur Genius Award? Tell me about the phone call?

  • 11:42:55

    WEILERSTEINWell, honestly, I thought it was spam. I thought it was a prank 'cause I received a couple of emails that I was sure they were spam. You know, these scams like, you know, I'm your long lost Nigerian grandfather…

  • 11:43:07

    REHMOf course.

  • 11:43:07

    WEILERSTEIN…and please send me a million dollars. That sort of thing…

  • 11:43:10

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:43:10

    WEILERSTEIN…'cause there was an unknown address and I was just very suspicious of the entire thing. And actually, I was at the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival at the time. So my phone was acting a little bit funny, you know. Sort of bouncing off different networks. And so I got these very garbled voicemails, which I didn't really pay attention to. Until finally I saw this same number calling me about four times. And I thought maybe I should call this person back.

  • 11:43:32

    WEILERSTEINAnd so it was around midnight Jerusalem time, right after I had played a concert. And so I called the number back and the guy said, oh, oh, thank you for calling me back finally. And I said I apologize if I should know who you are, but I'm really sorry. I -- can you tell me what this is all about? And so he told me, well, I direct a major program at the MacArthur Foundation. And so then he asked me if I knew what it was. And I sort of vaguely knew what it was, but I didn't really. And then he said, well, you know, there -- a couple of your colleagues have won a MacArthur fellowship.

  • 11:44:09

    WEILERSTEINAnd so he started telling me about some people. And he said, and then someone else that you know very well has won this award. And I said, well, who's that? And he said, well, you. And so -- and I said, well, thank you so much, but I had no -- I didn't -- I still didn't know what it meant. So then he told me what it meant. And I was on the street and I swore very loudly. I couldn't believe it. I was just in complete shock because, of course, this is something you can't apply for. You have no idea you're being considered.

  • 11:44:39

    REHMAbsolutely. Yeah.

  • 11:44:41

    WEILERSTEINSo it came completely out of the blue. I had, you know, no idea that it was (unintelligible).

  • 11:44:48

    REHMJust wonderful. Well, I congratulate you. Let's open…

  • 11:44:51

    WEILERSTEINThank you.

  • 11:44:52

    REHM…the phones now. First to Syd, in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.

  • 11:44:59

    SYDHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.

  • 11:45:01

    REHMSure.

  • 11:45:02

    SYDJust as I was listening, I couldn't help but think of parallels with the life of the great English cellist Jacqueline du Pre. And as many people know she was born in 1945 and she dies in 1987 from multiple sclerosis. And shew as the golden girl of her era in the '60s. But her career was cut short by the MS. And she went on sabbatical in 1971 and '72 and came back briefly, but then was forced to retire in 1973.

  • 11:45:41

    SYDThere was also a book written by her sister. It was originally titled "A Genius in the Family," about living with a child prodigy. It was later renamed, "Hilary and Jackie," and there was a movie made about it. But I'm more interested in whether you were influenced by her at all or if there were any parallels that you can relate to.

  • 11:46:08

    WEILERSTEINI was very strongly influenced by her playing. In fact, she was probably my favorite cellist growing up. I listened to her, along with Casals, Piatigorsky and Rostropovich, were my four cellists that I listened to. But I would be lying if I didn't say that she probably was my very favorite and I listened to every recording she made, you know, probably before I was 10 years old. And, you know, it was -- but that was really to do with her playing actually, not with her story so much.

  • 11:46:36

    WEILERSTEINI mean, I knew her story. And the, you know, the incredibly tragic story of her life. But her music-making what was I found so inspiring and her natural, incredibly natural way with the instrument and with music and her way of connecting with people. I thought that she could reach people in the most direct way that I had ever heard. And I still feel that way about many of her recordings.

  • 11:47:02

    REHMAnd now people are comparing you to Yo-Yo Ma. How do you feel about that?

  • 11:47:10

    WEILERSTEINWell, it's very flattering, of course. I have huge respect and admiration for Yo-Yo Ma, as well as for Jacqueline du Pre. But, you know, we're all individuals and we're all very different. And so while the comparison is always very flattering, I'm also my own person and artist. So…

  • 11:47:28

    REHMExactly. And now here is one of the great cello works. The last movement of the Kodaly's "Sonata for Solo Cello."

  • 11:48:55

    REHMThere seemed to be so many different techniques at work here.

  • 11:49:01

    WEILERSTEINYes. Absolutely. Kodaly was so influenced by gypsy violinists and gypsy string players. And they employed so many different techniques which really hadn't been used very much in Western -- what we know as Western classical music up until that time. So using pizzicato with the left hand while droning with the bow, you know, certain ways of producing a sort of a very glassy sound by playing very close to the bridge. And also, I mean, the sheer kind of scope of technical possibilities that he uses…

  • 11:49:38

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:49:39

    WEILERSTEIN…on the cello or -- was kind of unprecedented for the cello.

  • 11:49:43

    REHMAnd challenging. Challenging…

  • 11:49:45

    WEILERSTEINYeah, yeah, very challenging, yes.

  • 11:49:46

    REHM…for the cello.

  • 11:49:46

    WEILERSTEINYeah.

  • 11:49:47

    REHMHow long did you work on this before you performed it?

  • 11:49:54

    WEILERSTEINGosh, I don't remember. It was a very concentrated period of time. Maybe a month, I would say, where I was really just focused on it entirely. And I first performed it -- and I was 21, and actually it was in Cleveland on a solo recital. And I remember thinking at the time that this was my biggest project, to learn this piece…

  • 11:50:14

    REHMWhoa.

  • 11:50:15

    WEILERSTEIN…really properly. And so, yeah, 'cause it was completely worth it, though. It's an amazing piece.

  • 11:50:35

    REHMAnd now let's have an email from Amber. She says, "I've had Type I diabetes for almost 32 years. I also play the cello. As stress, anxiety and other factors do affect your blood sugar, how do you keep your blood at a normal level during a performance?" And what can you do if it bottoms out during a performance?

  • 11:51:15

    WEILERSTEINWell, I have what I -- I think I've perfected a kind of fool-proof method to make sure that that doesn't happen because bottoming out or having low blood sugar can cause you to lose coordination. And even, you know, in a severe case to faint, which is -- thank goodness that never happened to me.

  • 11:51:31

    REHMNot what you wanna do in a performance.

  • 11:51:33

    WEILERSTEINNo, certainly not.

  • 11:51:34

    REHMRight.

  • 11:51:35

    WEILERSTEINOr ever, yeah. But of course low blood sugars do happen, but I usually will give myself a bit of a threshold. So I will sometimes go on stage with a very slightly elevated blood sugar.

  • 11:51:47

    REHMI see.

  • 11:51:50

    WEILERSTEINSo I wouldn't go on at, let's say, 90 milligrams per deciliter for -- I would go say at 120 or above, so that I have a threshold to drop. Because of course, in my case, I usually drop when I perform because it's a physical effort. It's like exercise. So my blood sugar will tend to drop a little bit and I know that about myself now. So I give myself that little cushion, which has helped a lot.

  • 11:52:13

    REHMAll right. Let's go to Goodyear, Ariz. David, you're on the air.

  • 11:52:20

    DAVIDThank you, Diane. What an honor to speak to both of you.

  • 11:52:23

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:52:23

    DAVIDDiane, you're an absolute treasure.

  • 11:52:26

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:52:26

    DAVIDI thank you for the thousands of hours that you have informed me. And, Alisa, I must say I briefly met you in Spoleto. You had just played the Chopin "Sonata." I was just so inspired.

  • 11:52:41

    WEILERSTEINThank you so much.

  • 11:52:42

    DAVIDI came home and I started taking cello lessons. And I'm playing…

  • 11:52:45

    REHMOh.

  • 11:52:45

    DAVID…my first recital piece this Saturday. I'm doing Schumann's "Two Grenadiers." And I started taking cello at the age of 76.

  • 11:52:54

    REHMOh, fantastic.

  • 11:52:56

    WEILERSTEINOh, my goodness. That's wonderful.

  • 11:52:58

    REHMIsn't that wonderful?

  • 11:53:00

    WEILERSTEINThat's amazing.

  • 11:53:01

    REHMThere is hope for all of us.

  • 11:53:04

    WEILERSTEINAbsolutely. That's inspires me. I love that story. Thank you so much.

  • 11:53:07

    REHMCongratulations, David. And thanks for calling. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's see, to Cleveland, Ohio. Hi, Carol. You're on the air.

  • 11:53:24

    CAROLHi, Diane. I was very excited this morning when I heard that your guest was going to be Alisa Weilerstein. And as I was listening to the show earlier on, there was a promotion for the publisher of Anthony Doerr's book, "All the Light We Cannot See." And I just was struck by the fact that Anthony and Alisa both went to the same Montessori school here in Cleveland.

  • 11:53:49

    REHMHow about that?

  • 11:53:49

    WEILERSTEINOh, my goodness.

  • 11:53:50

    REHMYou didn't know that.

  • 11:53:51

    WEILERSTEINI didn't know that. No. I had no idea. That's amazing.

  • 11:53:53

    REHMAnd…

  • 11:53:54

    WEILERSTEINWhat a coincidence.

  • 11:53:57

    REHM…that has to be one of the most beautiful books I've read in years. So if you…

  • 11:54:05

    WEILERSTEINI'm gonna pick it up today.

  • 11:54:05

    REHM…haven't had a chance to read it yet, Alisa, you should.

  • 11:54:10

    WEILERSTEINOh, absolutely, I will for sure.

  • 11:54:13

    REHMYou really should. All right. To Cleveland Heights, Ohio, and to Lewis. You're on the air.

  • 11:54:21

    LEWISHi. I want to know, do you ever play professionally with your brother?

  • 11:54:27

    WEILERSTEINI do. In fact, played often. My brother's a wonderful conductor and I've played with him many times. We've done Dvorak "Concerto," Shostakovich "First" Elgar and several other pieces. And well, we plan to do a lot more together.

  • 11:54:43

    REHMAll right. And our fourth piece this morning, tell me what that is that we're going to play. It is the first movement of the Dvorak "Cello Concerto." Let's hear it.

  • 11:55:33

    REHMAnd, Alisa, you know have a child.

  • 11:55:35

    WEILERSTEINI will. I'm expecting one. How soon?

  • 11:55:41

    REHMIn April, actually.

  • 11:55:44

    REHMIn April?

  • 11:55:45

    WEILERSTEINYes. So…

  • 11:55:45

    REHMAnd looking ahead to that child's life, how will you introduce classical music?

  • 11:55:57

    WEILERSTEINWell, I think she's already been introduced to classical music whether she wants to be or not.

  • 11:56:01

    REHMExactly.

  • 11:56:02

    WEILERSTEINIn fact, this is -- it's the most wonderful thing to go on stage pregnant. It's, you know, going on with this, you know, creature that is growing, you know, by the moment. And actually is already reacting to different sounds and to different music, which is unbelievable.

  • 11:56:20

    REHMWonderful.

  • 11:56:21

    WEILERSTEINSo, yeah, this is an incredible sensation. And, but, look, it'll be entirely up to her how she will have classical music in her love. She will certainly have classical music in her life. This won't be a choice, but how she decide -- what she decides to do with it will be entirely her choice. This was how both my brother and myself were brought up, that it was entirely our choice what we would do with music and whether we decided to be musicians or not or to have it, to be amateurs, this was completely up to us.

  • 11:56:56

    REHMAlisa Weilerstein. She is a cellist, MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient in 2011, and celebrity advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. What a pleasure to be with you, to talk with you and to hear your glorious music.

  • 11:57:23

    WEILERSTEINThank you so much. It was absolutely my pleasure to be with you.

  • 11:57:26

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:57:26

    WEILERSTEINBeen an admirer of yours for a very long time.

  • 11:57:29

    REHMAh, thank you so much.

  • 11:57:30

    WEILERSTEINThank you.

  • 11:57:31

    REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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