Alisa Weilerstein: 'Rafael and I don't argue that much but we do have intense discussions about music'
Star cellist Alisa Weilerstein will play at Belfast's Waterfront tonight, conducted by her husband. She tells Una Brankin about her life and love
Alisa Weilerstein felt the full force of former US President Bill Clinton's legendary charisma up-close-and-personal when she met him in a lift in New York.
We are passing by the framed photo of the former President on the curving stairway to the Europa's lounge and bar, when she recalls the brief encounter.
"Oh yes, he's extremely charismatic; it was smiles and handshakes all round, but Obama - even more so," she says dreamily. "I played for him."
And fancied him?
She erupts in a booming laugh, powerful for all the size of her, and admits she finds the current President dishy. Her other half, Rafael Payare, hasn't anything to worry about, however. The diminutive cellist seems very much in love with the Ulster Orchestra's youthful chief conductor, her husband of two years.
Alisa (pronounced Alee-sa) is in Belfast for the orchestra's sparkling end-of-season concert, to be conducted by Rafael at the Waterfront Hall, where she will perform Elgar's Cello Concerto. She recently recorded the beautiful piece of classical music to rave reviews, which ranked her interpretation alongside Jacqueline du Pre's groundbreaking recording from almost half a century ago.
A former child prodigy, the 33-year-old from Cleveland is every bit as passionate in her approach as the iconic du Pre, and, having seen her glamorous and rather dramatic promotional pictures in advance, I'd subconsciously expected a bit of a diva.
In reality, she's lovely and refreshingly unjaded and modestly accepts my congratulations on her winning the BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year Award for her debut disc, the Elgar and Carter Cello Concertos, with the Berlin Staatskappelle (orchestra).
The first cellist to be signed by the prestigious Decca label in over 20 years, she's already considered one of the leading concert cellists in the world and has inevitably been hailed as the new Jacqueline du Pre.
"It's a huge compliment - I love her, but I don't like to be pigeon-holed," she says, over a cup of cappuccino. "She's one of my heroes. When I first heard her play Elgar's concerto, I was 12 and I became obsessed with it, so when it came my time to record it, I had to put away her version. I didn't want to copy her. In fact, I haven't listened to her playing in years - I miss it."
Du Pre died at 42 from multiple sclerosis, having been unable to play her beloved cello in her latter years. Alisa has her own health issue; she suffers from Type-1 diabetes, which requires insulin injections for life.
She had been playing the cello for eight years - having asked her mother for one, aged four - when she was a diagnosed with the condition.
"I'd lost a lot of weight and I was extremely thirsty and hungry; then I became very tired, which was very unlike me," she recalls. "Getting the diagnosis was very traumatic. I was shocked, but I always say, if there was an age to get it, then 12 was the perfect age. It's old enough to understand the disease and young enough to adapt to it. My parents were very positive from the beginning and the doctor told me, you can still be anything you want to be if you take care of yourself.
"But it's an around the clock, 365 day a year condition; there's no break from it. I don't produce any insulin at all."
The tempting mini pastries served with her coffee, therefore go untouched. She wears an insulin pump and uses a monitor to check her sugar levels frequently during the day. A "celebrity advocate" - ("such an obnoxious title," she says) - for the American Juvenile Diabetic Research Foundation, she tries to raise awareness of the condition and to reassure children who have been diagnosed that they can still live a normal life.
Having discovered her love for music at two-and-a-half, when her grandmother assembled a makeshift set of instruments from cereal boxes, old toothbrushes and chopsticks to entertain her while she was ill with chicken pox, Alisa was given a child-size cello at four by her parents, both professional classical musicians.
She gave her first public performance six months later, unhindered by nerves - "I was confident musically, if not in other respects."
By 15, she was appearing at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony. She went on to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" Fellowship and was already seen as a star of the classical world when she met the Venezuelan Rafael Payare (35) in Gothenburg. He was a hot-shot French horn player for the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela orchestra at the time; she was going for an audition.
"We shook hands - I thought he was a nice guy but was so focused on the audition I didn't really take much notice, but then we met in Venice shortly after that and there was an immediate … connection. It took off very quickly after that," she recalls.
She's wearing a simple, non-flashy solitaire engagement ring and gold wedding band on her left hand - which, incidentally has longer "freaky" fingers than her right, due to playing the cello religiously since she was four.
"He proposed in Venezuela, on the third anniversary of our first meeting. I was surprised by how he did it - on a mountain, by the sea. It was a full moon..." she trails off, a little shyly.
The couple married in the summer of 2013 in two ceremonies with Jewish elements, to reflect Alisa's Russian-Jewish ancestry. (Her father's family lost relatives in the Holocaust). The first took place at the Caramoor Centre for Music and the Arts in New York, and the other at a non-denominational service in Venezuela at Ranchos de Chana on Isla de Margarita.
"We had to have two weddings because Rafael's family is so huge - he has 150 cousins," she says.
"We had 120 guests in New York; then 320 on an island off the coast in Venezuela.
"We have an apartment in Caracas, but we only get to go there about twice a year, as we're always travelling. But we try to follow each other about, so we're not apart too long."
They have another apartment in Berlin in which they also rarely spend time. Given their hectic work schedules, they cherish opportunities to perform together in concerts such as the upcoming Waterfront Hall event.
"We really like working together, especially since Raphael became a conductor three years ago. We don't argue much, but we do have intense discussions about music.
"We share the same musical values and when we get a little bit of time off between performances in various cities, we both like to explore and go to the movies, and have good food and wine.
"We're just back from Barcelona - it was so wonderful just to walk down Las Ramblas there and to see the architecture, and the amazing Picasso museum in the little alleyway."
Children figure "definitely" in Alisa's future plans, and in her romantic husband's. As he told me in an interview last year, "I really love conducting, so I would like to keep doing it for a very long, long, long time and at the same time start my family and grow old with Alisa."
In the meantime, they're trying to learn German (Alisa is fluent in French and Spanish), in the little spare time they can find together.
"This is a working trip but I heard Northern Ireland is very beautiful and that Belfast is a rapidly growing city, and I want to see the cliffs and the countryside.
"The people are lovely; that's absolutely true. Some are hard to understand, though. I was in a taxi earlier and the driver was talking and talking and talking, and I was thinking, 'is this English?'"
With another hearty laugh she's off to a Lisburn Road beauty clinic I've recommended for a facial. She describes her skin as "teenage; far too much oil", and wants to have it looking good for an imminent photo-shoot.
"I have to work at it," she confides. "I work out six times a week, too. As you can see I'm vertically challenged.
"The gym is a good place to clear my head, too, with all the travelling I have to do. The odd glass of wine is good for that, too."
Conducted by her husband, Rafael Payare, Alisa will perform at the Ulster Orchestra season finale concert at 6pm tonight in the Waterfront Hall. The orchestra's ambitious 2015/16 programme will be announced in advance of Alisa' performance of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which has been described by The Guardian's Tom Service as "the most technically complete and emotionally devastating performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto that I have ever heard live." For tickets and further information, see www.ulsterorchestra.com