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Interview: Russian history did not yield all insights cellist Alisa Weilerstein needed for Shostakovich concerto

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Alisa Weilerstein performs Shostakovich with the Toronto Symphony on Thursday and Saturday.

Alisa Weilerstein doesn’t play the cello; she makes love to it.

It seems like a silly, clichéd way to describe an impassioned classical musician, but the 30-year-old American is proof why clichés come to be.

The cellist is back in Toronto this week, to perform two concerts with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — a 2 p.m. matinée on Thursday and a repeat performance at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Her contribution to the programme is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. The conductor is Dane Thomas Dausgaard, promising potent musicmaking at Roy Thomson Hall.

Weilerstein has been performing the Shostakovich concerto since her late teens, which means she already has years of experience and insight into this evocative, emotionally taut work.

The cellist, who went back to university after getting her music degree to study Russian History, has a particular affinity with the music and literature of 19th and 20th century Russia.

“One informs the other; it’s like a circle,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean all secrets to interpreting music from a particular time or place are unlocked by the study of its literature and history.

She recalls how, when she was 22, she had an opportunity to play the full concerto in private for Russian legend Mstislav Rostropovich, for whom Shostakovich had written the piece in 1959.

“He was sitting no more than a foot away from me; there weren’t going to be any secrets,” Weilerstein recalls. She says he was “very forthcoming” with criticism and helpful insights into the piece.

“He told me I was suffering too much outwardly while playing,” the cellist remembers. “It is indirect emotion, not like Tchaikovsky, which is all out there.”

Weilerstein has switched to a Russian accent as she relates Rostropovich’s reaction to her interpretation of the slow second movement: “It is not tragic, like you play it. It is like a folksong in Russia. It is like a mother rocking her little baby to sleep.”

The American adjusted her style accordingly, but admits, that, as is the case with any performer living with a piece of music over many years, her appreciation of — and approach to — the concerto continues to evolve.

Here is an audio clip of Weilerstein playing the second movement of the Shostakovich concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under conductor Christoph Eschenbach:

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra programme (also available on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. without Weilerstein’s concerto) includes the Symphony No. 2 by Johannes Brahms. The programme opens with Sphinx, a short, pre-World War I orchestral work by Danish composer Rud Immanuel Langgard.

For details, programme notes and ticket information, click here.

John Terauds

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