World on a String

Alisa Weilerstein has Yo-Yo Ma's seal of approval.


Classical music insiders have called Alisa Weilerstein many things: “immensely gifted,” “a force of nature,” “brilliant.” Yo-Yo Ma says she is “one of the most talented cellists of her generation.” But there is one accolade the 25-year-old hates: prodigy. “There is such a terrible stigma attached to that word,” says the cellist.

“I had a real childhood. Other kids did their extracurriculars—cello was just mine.” Truth be told, most children don’t make their professional debut onstage with the Cleveland Orchestra at age 13. Nor do they take master classes with Ma (she met him when she was nine) or combine high school with study at the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music.

But if music is in anyone’s genes, it’s in hers. Weilerstein’s mother is an accomplished pianist, and her father, a violinist, was an original member of the legendary Cleveland Quartet. (“They were sort of the Beatles of classical music,” she explains.) Since graduating from Columbia University in 2004, Weilerstein has become a regular at Carnegie Hall and has performed as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic. This past summer she collaborated with composer of the moment Osvaldo Golijov at the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center.

“She’s going to be a big star. She’s got all the goods,” says New York Philharmonic executive director Zarin Mehta. Onstage, the five-foot-two musician is known for creating a surprisingly big and emotional sound and delivering a physical yet technically precise performance. “She still doesn’t know how to fake it,” says Golijov. “She is totally in the moment and giving of herself—like a rock ’n’ roller.”

Her performances are, if nothing else, intense—and she can’t understand how some people describe classical music as “relaxing background music.” “Nothing irks me more,” Weilerstein says. “I don’t find it relaxing!”