Home > Alisa Weilerstein, Classical Music, Music, Writing > Heart Strings: World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein refuses to let chronic illness slow her down and she encourages others to pursue their dreams, too

Heart Strings: World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein refuses to let chronic illness slow her down and she encourages others to pursue their dreams, too

Talent is an attractive thing.  I am drawn to it as readily as the next person.  In my work I get to speak with more than my share of gifted individuals, including performers of one kind or another.  Classical music has great appeal to me but I don’t take the opportunity as much I would like to attend concerts.  It just so happens that in the past couple yeara or so I have done a number of assignments that  involved classical music artists and so I have basked more frequently in the power and spelendor or that music than normal.  Of course, when it’s performed or interpreted by enormously gifted artists it’s even more special, and that was the case with this story from a couple years ago about international cellist star Alicia Weilerstein.  She was a delight to interview and she was an inspiration to see perform.  Her passion on stage is impressive.  Her playing, sublime.  It’s neat to be able to get to know the performer a bit and then see her  do her thing.  There’s something both ethereal and earthy about the way she performs that’s quite captivating. Her head and her heart both feed her work.


Heart Strings:
World-renowned cellist Alisa Weilerstein refuses to let chronic illness slow her down and she encourages others to pursue their dreams, too

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine


Dynamic cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s breakthrough moment as a child both had nothing at all to do with her already planned music career and yet everything to do with it.

At age 9 she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, the kind of news no one wants to hear, least of all someone with a fragile dream of performing on stage with the world’s finest symphony orchestras.

But a setback doesn’t stop the doers in life from fulfilling their wishes. That’s why the 20-something Weilerstein comes to her May 29 and 30 Holland Performing Arts Center concerts with the Omaha Symphony Orchestra this weekend on the fast-track to classical music superstardom.

In Omaha she’ll perform Franz Joseph Haydn‘s “Concerto in C Major for Cello and Orchestra,” a-long-thought lost piece rediscovered in 1961. It received its first modern performance in 1962. The concerto’s three movements display the soloist-orchestra concertante “agreement” of Haydn’s time — an 18th century classical music call and response style. The serene centerpiece adagio is for strings only. It’s bracketed by spirited passages in which cello and orchestra go wild.

The American soloist, who began playing professionally at 14, has been called “a young old master.” Major symphony orchestras and music festivals in America and Europe clamor to engage her virtuoso talent. Icons like Yo-Yo Ma and Zubin Mehta sing her praises. Reviewers commend the bold passion she expresses in her intense, energetic performance on stage.

She does all this despite her diabetes. A daily regimen of insulin injections, blood sugar monitoring and strict dietary practices allows her to maintain a schedule of 100-plus concert/recital dates a year. Her exuberant life and work exemplify just how much one can accomplish when properly managing the condition.


Cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
Wherever she goes these days she delivers this empowering message of hope as a Celebrity Advocate for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, whose mission is outreach, education and finding a cure. In Omaha she’s invited area children with diabetes to attend an open rehearsal session and then meet her at a reception backstage, where she’ll do an informal Q & A. Her role is to encourage anyone coping with diabetes with her own inspiring personal story.

“The message I want to get across is, one doesn’t have to abandon any ambition because of it,” Weilerstein said by phone.

Omaha-Council Bluffs JDRF chapter executive director Shawn Reynolds said it’s a needed message: “Diabetes can be life-threatening and life-limiting, and ambassadors like Alisa inspire individuals with Type 1 diabetes to face their dreams for their lives without fear.”

Courage is a process. After the jolt of finding out she had diabetes Weilerstein gritted her teeth and did what she had to do to keep her dream on track.

“It was overwhelming and, actually, I think I was more in shock than anything,” she said. “I didn’t try and deny it. I thought, ‘Oh, this sucks, but this is what it is and I’m going to do the best I can to take care of it.’ I had great doctors who assured me I would live a very long, healthy, productive life with it and it was completely possible to do whatever I wanted to do with the monkey I now had in my life.”

Then came her next challenge — conquering the needle by teaching herself to self-inject. She was a determined little girl who wouldn’t let anything, much less an illness, stand in her way. She learned to do it.

“I’ve always been very self-motivated and focused. If I decided I really wanted to do something or fix something I’ve always put my whole energy behind that.”

As she’s discovered, managing her disease and mastering her art require similar qualities. “Discipline and focus, that’s what they both have in common,” she said.

“They both take constant vigilance. Well, in a way one’s work is never done with the art and one’s work is certainly never done with diabetes. There’s always stuff you can do to improve it. It’s kind of this huge sort of juggling act to take care of diabetes and for sure to carry a full concert schedule with all the repertoire.”

Her ability to handle it all with aplomb is why many in the music world were surprised when she revealed she’s been a Type 1 diabetic since childhood. Until last year only family and friends knew about Weilerstein’s diabetes. She didn’t go public before because of questions her affliction invariably elicits.

“The reason I was private about it is that there is a stigma attached to it still unfortunately — about the complications that are possible to get,” she said.

She abhors the suggestion her disease might slow her down or necessitate a scaled-back career or touring slate. She doesn’t like making excuses.

“I just didn’t want anyone to entertain that thought remotely, so I kept it to myself and wanted to prove that I could handle any schedule that was thrown at me. And now that I have proved that I feel completely comfortable talking about it. I feel like I’m at a point where I can help people, which is something I’ve wanted to do.

“I am luckily in a position to reach more people because I travel so much and it’s a nice way to take advantage of that.”


©Photo: Jamie Jung
Thus, she uses music as a medium for reaching out to others as a creative artist who just happens to be diabetic.

Music is a family legacy. Her father, violinist Donald Weilerstein, was a founder of the Cleveland Quartet. Her mother, pianist Vivian Hornik Weilerstein, is equally accomplished. Her parents have their own separate touring careers and the family occasionally performs together as the Weilerstein Trio.

Alisa felt the call as a preschooler. “I knew exactly what I wanted from a very early age — I wanted to be a professional cellist,” she said. “There was no question in my mind. I can’t remember not wanting to play the cello.” Why the cello?  “I think it has the widest range of emotion of any instrument. It’s the closest to the human voice. We have the deepest bass, the highest soprano. I really think it’s capable of producing an indescribable amount of color, of emotions, of touching so many people.”

She begged her folks for a cello at age 4. They acquiesced. She began taking lessons. Her parents resisted pressure to tap her soon-evident prodigious gift.

“When I was very little there were people who were saying to my parents, ‘Alisa’s very talented and why aren’t you demanding more from her?’ My parents said, ‘Well, we want her to be a kid and to love the instrument and not think of it as just work.’ They were quite smart about it,” she said, admiringly.

At 9 her training turned more rigorous. “I went to teachers who had me work in a methodical way to really build a solid foundation and from then on I started practicing much harder. You know, hours of scales, arpeggios and etudes. I went through a ton of repertoire in a very, very careful manner and I really credit that for my technical development.” Despite pressure, her career progressed gradually.




©photo Erin Baiano for The New York Times



“My manager, I give her a lot of credit. She went very carefully with me,” said Weilerstein, who interrupted her touring to attend Columbia University. “I really feel like I had a full experience as a kid and as a young adult. That’s something I felt very, very strongly about. I wanted to meet different people from different backgrounds and to not constantly be surrounded by musicians and to also get a real education. My family was one hundred percent behind me.

“I never felt pushed into anything, and I just feel incredibly lucky things have worked the way they have, not just because they’re going so well but because things went very slowly.”

Since resuming music full-time, she said, “things have really jumped. The quality of work has gotten so much better and I’ve also been playing a lot more. I’m very grateful for that.” The whirlwind she’s on now can be “grueling and tiring,” she said, “but for me, at least at this point, it’s really worth it.” Besides, she’s paid to do what she loves. “I’m really enjoying it, I really am.”

Two more benefits of her life in music — working with great artists and meeting a diversity of people. She has friends now all over the globe. She expects to make some new friends in Omaha. “I’m looking forward to meeting some kids and families dealing with diabetes. It’s really nice to work with young people.”


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