Alisa Weilerstein in conversation with Harvey Steiman about FRAGMENTS, her fresh approach to Bach’s cello suites

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein in conversation with Harvey Steiman

Alisa Weilerstein walked onto the stage Monday morning at Harris Concert Hall in Aspen, picked up her cello and played for a select audience who were there to provide feedback on her new idea for a concert experience.

Alisa Weilerstein © Graham Northrup/Northrup Studios

For the project, called FRAGMENTS, Weilerstein had commissioned short pieces from 27 living classical composers to intersperse between the 36 movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for unaccompanied cello. The audience got no printed program and knew only that she was going to play all of the first cello suite and music from five contemporary composers. There would be a stage set and lighting.

‘It is solo cello music, but it is also a piece of theater’, she explains on a preview video. ‘You don’t need to come at it with any particular knowledge to get everything out of it. Each evening is based on one suite and is its own original creation. I arrange these works of living composers and of Bach in a way that’s an entirely original arc’.

The post-concert discussion gave the no-program idea a thumbs-up. For me, it was no more daunting than tuning in the car radio to an unfamiliar piece. Copies of the program, distributed post-discussion, identified the 18 fresh works composed by Joan Tower, Reinaldo Moya, Allison Loggins-Hull, Chen Yi and Gili Schwarzman. [No reviews could be published.] Later that day she workshopped the second suite, this time with interstitial music by Ana Sokolovic, Gitty Razaz, Daniel Kidane, Alan Fletcher and Caroline Shaw.

At 40, Weilerstein has established herself at the top rank of classical cellists. It’s a bold move to mess with the classical recital experience, especially with the Bach cello suites, the mountaintop for cellists. Previously, I have been struck by how personal her interpretations were, applying formidable technique and emphasizing her own feeling for the music, often different from traditional performance practices.

Weilerstein and I chatted over lunch in Aspen.

Harvey Steiman: How did the no-program-in-advance idea come to you?

Alisa Weilerstein: This was actually the first thing. When I began to conceive this in November 2020, I was feeling frustrated because nothing was coming to fruition. I put the cello away for about ten days. I took long walks on the beach and tried to imagine how to communicate with audiences in a different way.

If we think music is the highest form of communication and transcends language and history, let’s really embrace that. Why do we have such a strong instinct to categorize what we see and hear, stuff that is irrelevant to the music? I don’t want people with their noses in their programs, wondering what is the [composer’s] race or ethnicity and history.

I think I listen more deeply to music without an introduction, without a context. I listen with a much more open mind to new music if I don’t know who the composer is. The project is not about who the composers are but what their music is actually saying.

HS: So far, you have music from 16 composers. You’re not expecting to receive all of the music until 2024. What if you get something and you think, that would have been perfect for Fragment 1?

AW: When we get down to recording it for posterity, I might want to do some tweaking, but I like the way I constructed the first two.

HS: Take me through your thinking about how to fit these new elements together with Bach’s suites.

AW: One of the blessings, and the curses, of Bach is that it’s so universal. It could go with anything. That gives me a blank slate, but first I had to learn all the music, get a feel for what it has to say. As I was learning the pieces, I tried to fit them together intuitively and then deal with timings to get it down to about an hour.

HS: You created a whole new arc for each suite, even rearranged Bach’s order, for what purpose?

AW: I liked putting the prelude at the end of No.1. It’s the most famous movement of any Bach cello suite. In that position it’s a summation, and it brings things full circle. That goes with how the set was constructed, the elements arranged in a circle around the cellist. From that point, honestly, it just flowed out. Constructing the arc became a very natural thing – relating the pieces harmonically and by tempo.

When I received these pieces, even after I had given every composer the same prompt, one of the joys was how very different they were from one another. FRAGMENT 1 starts very quietly. FRAGMENT 2 starts with a big slap in the face – the lights come up like I stuck my finger in an electric socket. I like the difference, and it reflects the nature of the suites.

HS: Each Bach suite creates its own arc, from a prelude that lays out a basic melodic idea and then builds a series of dances from that idea. Yehuda Hanani used to talk about this architecture. It strikes me that interpolating new music into the suites is like adding modern elements onto old buildings, something that postmodern architects did. Does that ring a bell with you?

AW: Hanani was one of my teachers, and I love that idea, but I don’t think of this project as Bach-plus. There’s actually more music that’s not Bach. [Note: about twice as much]

HS: What do you hope the theatrical aspects – set, lighting, clothing – will add to the experience of the music?

AW: I was thinking of how we connect with one another, and how people who don’t come to a classical concert may be fearful. Why do they feel disconnected from what is on stage? How can we make this a more visceral, intense, welcoming experience?

HS: Seems to me you’re saying to the audience, ‘I’m just going to invite you into my space, sit down and play for you’.

AW: That’s what I want, and it involves a certain amount of trust to sit there in the audience with no information.

I’ve been watching how my children [6-year-old and 6-month-old girls with her husband, conductor Rafael Payare] listen to music. I put on my recording of Haydn’s G major concerto, and it just goes right through my younger daughter. How do we get back to that, that visceral response? She doesn’t have any way of communicating verbally, but it reaches her. When she’s crying, I sometimes put on a Mozart symphony, and she’s quiet. It’s in all of us. I search for ways to get back to that primal way we respond to music.

HS: As you describe this, I’m thinking of the Pixar movie Ratatouille, when the critic takes a first taste and is transported back to his childhood.

AW: It’s so beautiful and powerful, that moment. You see his face change completely, and all the layers are stripped away, and you’re going to the essence. I don’t pretend that FRAGMENTS does that, but I’m trying.

HS: OK, but why the lighting, the setting, the theatrical aspects?

AW: When I was constructing this, I realized there needs to be a visual element. It’s music first and lighting second, but lighting can enhance the music if we’re careful to do it subtly. We’re not making a music video. Did you notice that each composer has his or her own lighting world? One’s turquoise, another is purple, Bach is off-white. It’s not random.

HS: Although most of the ‘fragment’ pieces were about as far from Bach’s music as you can get, one was an intentional nod to Bach, almost a pastiche.

AW: Yes, one was definitely Baroque-ish. Maybe it’s nerdy, but I tried so show it was not actually Bach, by trilling incorrectly – starting from the bottom of the note instead of the top in Baroque style. The audience may not notice, but I hope they’ll feel something different and let go of preconceptions.

HS: How did the experience feel to you, to finally do this before an audience?

AW: It felt fantastic. I’ve never been so nervous to anything in my life, on stage. I didn’t sleep for a week-and-a-half before. I was on a European tour, playing the Elgar concerto. The only time I wasn’t thinking about it (the workshop) was when I was on stage playing Elgar. I kept thinking, this can’t fail, can it?

[For a short YouTube video on FRAGMENTS click here.]

Harvey Steiman

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