PCS Clyde’s

Summiting Bach’s Everest: Alisa Weilerstein in Portland

The star cellist enraptured a crowded church performing Bach’s complete cello suite cycle for CMNW.

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Alisa Weilerstein performed the Bach Cello Suites at Portland's First Baptist Church in February 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Alisa Weilerstein performed the Bach Cello Suites at Portland’s First Baptist Church in February 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.

Alisa Weilerstein, a 40-year-old cellist and new mother dressed in an off-the-shoulder tangerine top, black leggings and 4-inch sparkling spikes, was all alone on the stage for 3.5 hours at a sold-out Chamber Music Northwest concert Feb. 4 at First Baptist Church in downtown Portland. The concert was moved from The Old Church in late December when it was clear that more tickets would sell (buyers making their choices closer to the event these days) and that The Old Church wouldn’t be able to contain them all – or the star quality of Weilerstein. CMNW ultimately sold 615 tickets; the crowded church was full of expectation. 

If we thought the concert was long, what about the musician who played all six of the Bach Cello Suites, all six with seven movements, all six without a score? This is the musical equivalent of summiting Everest or building the Taj Mahal. And Weilerstein didn’t just play: she soared into some musical sphere with her cello that she carried like a prizefighter on and off the stage, barely taking a break between suites, rarely taking more than a second or two between movements. She was nothing less than an adrenalin-charged energy bunny, a marathoner, an inspiration that stole every ounce of the rapt audience’s attention. No one moved a muscle, other than Weilerstein–and an enthusiast in the first row who double-timed with nervous legs throughout the Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major and the No. 2 in D Minor. That is, no one stirred until they stood up and clapped. For minutes and minutes and minutes. She couldn’t get enough, nor could the concert-goers give her enough, and no way after all that, did she have an encore in store. Nor was one expected.

Alisa Weilerstein performed the Bach Cello Suites at Portland's First Baptist Church in February 2023. Photo by Soovin Kim.
Photo by Soovin Kim.

Of course, Johann Sebastian Bach’s music draws a crowd. Some people simply adore him, others know all his works, and others know that they should know him. If you’ve seen Tár, the recent Oscar-nominated film about fictional powerhouse conductor Lydia Tár, you probably recall a scene in which Tár is grilling a young BIPOC Juilliard student about his musical tastes. His response: “I’m not really into Bach.” She skewers him.

Weilerstein performed more like an opera singer than an instrumentalist, except she couldn’t move most of her body because she played seated, as cellists do. Her legs gripped her 1723 Montagnana cello, her strong, compact arms and small hands ran up and down the cello’s neck. But her face and head moved with the music, with expressions ranging from uninhibited bliss to despair to determination to little-girl playfulness to countless emotions in between. When she threw her head back and looked up at the church ceiling toward the last notes of the 24-minute Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, she was likely looking at the stars. 

Alisa Weilerstein performed the Bach Cello Suites at Portland's First Baptist Church in February 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Photo by Tom Emerson.

Or maybe she was thanking her stars. Born into a musical family, she’s the product of virtuoso violinist father Donald Weilerstein, who founded the renowned Cleveland Quartet, and mother pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein. Her brother is Joshua Weilerstein, a globe-hopping guest conductor, and she’s married to Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare

With those genes and influences, it’s no surprise she took up the cello at 4 years old, played Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with the Cleveland Orchestra at 13, and two years later made her Carnegie Hall debut with the New York Youth Symphony, all the while since she was 9, a type 1 diabetes sufferer. The achievements and appearances go on and on, around the world, until critics can only come up with such jaw-dropping imprecise descriptions as “truly a phenomenon,” (the United Kingdom’s Telegraph) and “at one with her cello” (the Los Angeles Times). She won a MacArthur Genius award in 2011, and a couple of years after that played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where conductor Gustavo Dudamel–born a year before Weilerstein and now, at 42, on his way to conducting the New York Phil–pulled a neck muscle trying to keep up with Weilerstein’s breakneck tempo in Dvorak’s cello concerto, the crown jewel of the cello repertoire. The maestro had to go to the hospital at intermission, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times reported.

Weilerstein brims with confidence and artistry, if her communication is exclusively with her instrument while she’s playing. She’s a musical prodigy with a stupendous memory, fiery performing style and Decca recording contract. She plays with her entire self, she loves the stage, and she dresses for comfort. She’s the future–not that Yo-Yo Ma will ever go out of style. This was her Portland debut. Don’t miss her next visit.

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Alisa Weilerstein performed the Bach Cello Suites at Portland's First Baptist Church in February 2023. Photo by Tom Emerson.
Photo by Tom Emerson.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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