Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan to play Beethoven at virtual Aspen Music Fest
IF YOU WATCH…
What: Recital by Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan
When: Sunday, July 26, 3 p.m. Rebroadcast July 28, 7 p.m.
How much: Free
More info: The program includes performances of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A major, op. 69 and Cello Sonata in D major, op. 102, no. 2
The cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan reunited in Southern California recently, digging back into their project interpreting Beethoven’s cello sonatas.
It had been put on hold, like most everything, since the springtime when the novel coronavirus pandemic swept across the world. For Weilerstein and Barnatan, that meant canceled performances of the sonata cycle and months spent on opposite coasts.
Barnatan, who serves as music director of the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest, drove from New York to San Diego this month and soon found himself back beside Weilerstein. The pair have joined their households in a “pod” — dropping distancing and mask protocol — to allow for in-person rehearsal and public recitals, which begin Sunday with a performance from La Jolla for the virtual Aspen Music Festival.
“As soon as I got here, I took a COVID test and as soon as I got the negative result I went straight to her house,” Barnatan recalled on Monday in a Zoom panel discussion with Weilerstein and Aspen Music Festival President and CEO Alan Fletcher as part of the festival’s weekly “High Points” series.
Barnatan was the first guest in Weilerstein’s home in four months, Weilerstein said. Weilerstein — whose husband, Rafael Payare, is music director of the San Diego Symphony — normally splits her time between Southern California and Berlin, with frequent travels for concerts and regular visits to Aspen. This year she’s stayed in San Diego since March, other than one overseas trip for a concert broadcast in Germany.
Playing music in person with Barnatan, she said, has been a welcome — if small — dose of normalcy during the pandemic.
Both are also like family to Aspen audiences.
Weilerstein made her debut onstage in Aspen 25 years ago, as a precocious 13-year-old student at the Aspen Music Festival and School. But the acclaimed musician had been coming to the annual summer festival since she was 3 months old.
Her parents were long-serving members of the Music School faculty and brought Weilerstein along as her mother taught piano and her father taught violin.
As an adult, Weilerstein has become a leading cellist, and was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2011. Along the way, she’s annually made it back to Aspen as a guest performer.
Barnatan has been a regular in Aspen since 2008 as his star has risen internationally. Recent Aspen high points for the Israeli pianist have included a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Aspen Chamber Symphony in 2018, and an acclaimed performance of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio that proved to be a season highlight in 2017, when he also gave the world premiere of a new piano concerto composed by Alan Fletcher at the Benedict Music Tent.
On Sunday, the pair will perform Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas No. 3 and 5. They have been performing together for the past 12 years and Beethoven’s Fifth Cello Sonata was one of the first pieces they tackled though they said they’ve come to approach it much differently in the years since.
Last fall, they began performing the sonatas as a cycle rather than programming them alongside other composers’ work. The result has been a revelation.
“Context matters,” Barnatan said. “When you do the Fifth sonata next to Stravinsky it feels much different than doing it as a cycle.”
The pair noted that Beethoven’s five cello sonatas can be a shortcut to understanding his work — Beethoven returned to the form in his early, middle and late periods bringing each stage of development’s stylistic touches to the sonatas. Weilerstein describes them as “snapshots” of each period’s style, developing from the strictly Classical approach of the First – which Weilerstein described as “a piano concerto with cello interjections” — to the wild fugue of the Fifth.
“That is a wild journey in itself,” she said.
Last season was the first time the pair peformed the complete Beethoven sonata cycle publicly, the first of them in October. They had several concerts scheduled in the spring to perform the sonatas, but those were canceled as the pandemic spread around the globe.
Barnatan also noted how Beethoven defined the dual sonata form with these works, moving it from the world of private chamber music — where women played piano and men played string instruments at home — to public performance. The piano dominates the early sonatas, but by the Fourth the cello and piano are given equal standing and it is written with an audience in mind.
“You get this journey through Beethoven himself,” Barnatan said. “That informs the way you play them.”
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