Alisa Weilerstein's cello career began with chicken pox. At about age 3, frustrated and itchy, little Alisa became mesmerized by a new toy. It was a miniature cello, crafted by hand by her grandmother. The body of the instrument was made from Rice Krispies boxes, and the endpin was an old toothbrush.
Something major must have clicked that day. Because now, some 25 years later, Weilerstein is one of today's top cellists, enjoying a globe-spanning career of performances with orchestras, chamber music concerts and recitals.
Grandma wasn't the only family member to play a significant role in Weilerstein's musical career. Her parents, violinist Donald Weilerstein and pianist Vivain Hornik Weilerstein, are both distinguished musicians. Together, they perform as the Weilerstein Trio.
For this Tiny Desk Concert, Weilerstein chose to juxtapose the old with the new — beginning with a pair of movements from J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 for solo cello.
She told us the story of how Bach Suites found a second life.
"For about 150 years after Bach's death," she said, "the suites were not played at all, until they were rediscovered by the famed cellist Pablo Casals. When he was 12 years old, in 1888, in a tiny village in Catalonia, he went to a music store and saw, on a dusty shelf, the sheet music for the Six Suites for Solo Cello by J.S. Bach. And he said, 'I felt like I had made a discovery of immense importance. I rushed back home and practiced them for 13 years.' It took him that long before he would play the pieces in public. And the rest is history. Casals made the Suites the cornerstone of the cello repertoire."
Although from a vastly different sound world, the new piece, Omaramor by Osvaldo Golijov, like the Bach, also has a story. Essentially, it's a wide-ranging, cinematic homage to the late, great Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel.
Weilerstein's performance couldn't be more visceral and gripping. Her cello takes us through the back streets of Buenos Aires — sometimes violent, but always suffused with the soulful, restless spirit of Argentina's beloved tango.
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