Alisa Weilerstein guests with the orchestra this weekend.

Cello fervor

'A Bohemian Rhapsody: Dvorak and Brahms'

With the Honolulu Symphony and guest cellist Alisa Weilerstein; Emile de Cou, guest conductor

Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall

When: 8 p.m. today and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $21, $33, $43, $51 and $64

Call: 792-2000

Twenty-two-year-old American cellist Alisa Weilerstein is known for her natural virtuosity and impassioned musicianship.

Weilerstein, who performs with the Honolulu Symphony tonight and Sunday, has performed with several noted U.S. and European orchestras through her young career. In 2002, Weilerstein appeared with the New York Philharmonic on its Concerts in the Parks series, performing one night before 80,000 people in Central Park.

She began playing cello at the tender age of 4, and incredibly performed her first public concert six months later.

Weilerstein made her Carnegie Hall debut at the "old" age of 15.

She often plays with her parents, violinist Donald and pianist Vivian, as a member of the Weilerstein Trio. She's a graduate of the Young Artist Program at the Cleveland Institute of Music, and currently matriculates at Columbia University.

We caught up with Weilerstein by phone from New York City while she was packing for her first trip to Hawaii.

Question: Since your parents are also professional musicians, did you really have any other choice as a profession other than music?

Answer: My parents were quite reluctant to give me a cello at such a young age because I was 4. I had to beg for it.

Q: How actually did you start?

A: My first contact with a cello was when I was 2 1/2, though it really wasn't a cello. My father and mother were touring and I was staying with my grandmother. I got the chicken pox and my grandmother felt sorry that I was miserable, so she made me a cereal-box cello out of a Rice Krispies box and the fingerboard and holes and all that and made (the bow) out of an old toothbrush. She also made violins and violas, but I ignored those.

Q: Your career began with a cereal-box cello?

A: When my parents returned, they rehearsed at home. I was so excited that I could participate, though my instrument made no sound. That's when I started begging for a real cello.

Q: Why the cello?

A: It's the most human of all instruments because of its range and depth -- the most soulful of the string instruments.

Q: After you got that first cello, how long did it take for you to get proficient?

A: Right away. If you get a child involved in music at an early age, they will pick it up rapidly.

Q: Playing an instrument so early in life, do you feel you missed your childhood?

A: No, not at all. My parents were instrumental in that, too. I didn't really practice a lot until I was about 9. I did practice half an hour to an hour a day, but I usually would just go into my room and improvise for a few hours. I taught myself a lot, though all the wrong way -- I corrected that later on. The most important thing in my upbringing was that I was allowed to love the instrument and the music first. It was good to let me run wild for a while.

Q: What's the best musical advice you've ever received?

A: Love is the most important thing. Love what you do and if you ever stop loving it, stop doing it.

Q: What's the worst thing about being a musician in high demand?

A: The loneliness of travel, because I mostly travel alone. That can be hard.

Q: How do you travel with a cello?

A: I have to buy a seat for it. I usually fly coach and some airlines have very strict cello regulations that it must be in a bulkhead seat. I was flying this one route on United Airlines -- I hate United Airlines because they are impossible with cellos! On one flight, they only have the bulkhead in first class. So they made me buy a first-class seat for the cello and it had a much better seat than I did! I sat behind it.

Q: Can you sense in yourself just before you're going on stage whether you're going to have a good performance or not?

A: Sometimes. If I am very tired, jet-lagged, rehearsals haven't gone so well, not in love with the piece, it can hurt. But usually I can talk myself out of that. I'm always in a mood to play, to go on stage.

There was one time in Australia, I was totally jet-lagged. An 18-hour time difference. My fingers were still sort of swollen and I thought I was going to fall asleep, but then I saw the crowd and heard the applause and I felt awake.

Q: How often do you practice?

A: It varies with the stuff I have to do. And it's always about quality, not quantity. I was a student at Columbia for four years, majoring in Soviet history, and often I had no time to practice. But one of the things I learned there that is so important is how to practice very efficiently. What used to take me four hours in high school I get done in one hour.

Q: Why Soviet history?

A: I love the music of Shostokovich and Tchaikovsky so much. I'm learning Russian now. And I'm not happy unless I'm busy.

Q: You started playing with your parents at age 6. Wasn't that a lot of pressure?

A: I was too young and naive to feel any pressure. It's fun to play with my parents, and we still do. My parents are always supportive. We're a very close family, so that bond is incredibly special.

Q: Has the child surpassed the parents in musical talent?

A: That is very provocative! I can't answer that. I don't think that way. They have so much to give, and I have so much to learn from them. They are very generous to because they admit they learn from me as well. They did even when I was a little girl. At 10, I was free to make comments and they would take it seriously.

Q: What's the worst description in classical music for a performer?

A: I hate the words "child prodigy." People have tried to label me as that, and it is not how I was brought up, not at all.

The Honolulu Symphony

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