Last week the 29-year-old cellist Alisa Weilerstein, of New York, was named a MacArthur fellow, one of the country’s most prestigious honors in the arts and sciences. Each of the 22 recipients of the honor, also known as the “genius” awards, receives a $500,000 grant, spread out over five years, with no stipulations attached. The Jewish Week caught up with Weilerstein, the youngest honoree this year, the day after the fellows were announced.
Q.: I read you were in Jerusalem when you heard you won the MacArthur. Tell me why you were there, and what your reaction was.
A.: I was in Israel for the Jerusalem [International] Chamber Music Festival, which I’ve been going to for the last several years. My head was literally buried in the sand; I was rehearsing for my recitals non-stop. I wasn’t talking to anyone. Then I got two messages on my phone, which said, “We have some really good news to tell you.” At first, I thought it was some kind of joke. But I called back a few hours later and realized they were serious. I was in shock; I screamed.
A lot has been written about your background in music: how you made your professional debut when you were 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra; how you still perform with your parents, both of whom are classical musicians, too. But not much is written about your Jewish background. What can you tell me about it?
On my dad’s side, I’m a third-generation Jewish American. Both his parents came to the United States at the turn of the 20th Century, from Lithuania, escaping pogroms. On my mom’s side, I’m second-generation. Her parents lived in Vienna until 1938, but escaped just before the Anschluss. They met after they escaped, and my mother was born in New York after the war.
Is there any connection between your Jewish background and your interest in classical music?
Well, there are many, many Jewish musicians in classical music. However, I was brought into music because of the music first, and for no other reason.
You work closely with a few Jewish musicians that, in some way or another, are connected to Jewish-themed projects. Osvaldo Golijov, the composer you work with often, has written many pieces with Jewish themes. And Daniel Barenboim, the conductor you’ve played for a lot too, is well-known for founding an Israeli-Palestinian orchestra. Do you feel a special connection with Jewish artists?
I think both are great musicians, and I try to participate in anything Osvaldo is doing. I think he’s one of the best composers we have, and his piece “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” [based on the story of a 12th-century mystic rabbi] is one of his best works, I think. It pulsates with Jewish history, and I play it whenever I can. But I work with Osvaldo and Daniel because they’re phenomenal musicians. That’s the most important bond we share, as musicians. But, yes, there’s a Jewish connection, too.
You didn’t take a normal classical musician’s path and go straight to a conservatory. You went to Columbia University for college instead, where you majored in Russian history. Was Jewish history a part of your academic focus?
Not really. I focused on the Soviet Union and some imperial Russian history. I didn’t study much Jewish history in college. Most of the Jewish education I got was during the time of my bat mitzvah. But my family is quite secular.
So how would you characterize your Jewish identity? Is Israel an important part of it?
Sure, absolutely. One reason I go to Israel a lot is because they have so many great cultural institutions. The Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival is one of the best in the world. But of course, it’s the Holy Land too. And it resonates with me strongly when I’m there.
There’s no obligation to use the MacArthur grant toward a specific project. But do you plan on using it to support a specific work anyway, perhaps even a Jewish one?
There’s a reason they give us three months before they start actually giving us the payments. They want us to get our act together; they don’t just expect us to spend the money on anything. I have a lot of ideas. I don’t mean to be elusive, but I’m not sure what I’ll do with it yet.
Have you ever considered doing a Jewish project, even before the grant?
I really don’t know, I can’t say one way or the other. There are many possibilities, and that’s certainly one.