From relaxing to raucous: Weilerstein conducts the full classical repertoire in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyJoshua Weilerstein is the Aspen Music Festival's assistant conductor for the 2011 season, and conducts the Aspen Concert Orchestra on Wednesday, July 13, in a program of works by Korngold, Mahler and Chris Rogerson.

ASPEN – “Sit back and relax,” goes the advertisement for Boston’s classical-music radio station. For at least one Boston resident, the seemingly innocuous message has just the opposite effect.

“It makes me so mad,” said Joshua Weilerstein of the ad. “Because there is some relaxing music. But to me and anyone who plays it, there’s this intense, emotional experience. The Rachmaninoff on Sunday” – a reference to the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s performance of the composer’s Symphony No. 2, set for Sunday, July 10 – “no one’s going to call that relaxing. This stigma that you have to put on a suit and tie and you’re going to have this two-hour relaxing experience – that’s anathema to me.”

Weilerstein knows the thrill that comes with visceral music that doesn’t pay much attention to being well-mannered. A fan of classic rock, and a one-time aspiring guitarist, Weilerstein is a veteran of what he describes as “terrible, terrible rock bands” – and he enjoyed the experience so much that he spent most of his teens playing that obnoxious, artless music.

Weilerstein has since had a change of musical preference. Now 23, he is on track to become a notable conductor of classical music. In 2009 – just after receiving his bachelor’s degree in violin from the New England Conservatory – Weilerstein won the Malko Competition for Young Conductors, in Copenhagen; his prize was a series of conducting engagements throughout Scandinavia. That summer, in his first formal training atmosphere as a conductor, he attended the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen, and left with the Robert J. Harth Conductor Prize. Last summer he returned to the Academy, and earned the Aspen Conducting Prize.

His reward: a lot more work. This summer, Weilerstein is the Music Festival’s assistant conductor – the back-up guy for virtually every symphonic performance on the eight-week schedule. That means becoming intimate with dozens of scores, from centuries-old standards to new works by 20-something composers. When he gets his own spotlight gig this week, conducting the Aspen Concert Orchestra on Wednesday, July 13, Weilerstein will get a taste of both: the program includes Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, composed in the 1880s; and “Noble Pond,” by Chris Rogerson, a 22-year-old who earned the Aspen Music Festival’s Jacob Druckman Award for composers. (Rounding out the concert is Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D major, with 20-something Elizabeth Fayette as soloist.)

Weilerstein has come to believe that audiences should have exposure to the full range of classical repertoire: familiar works and contemporary ones; soothing pieces and stormy, chaotic music. He recalls hearing a concert that included, in the first half, thorny pieces by Elliott Carter and Charles Wourinen, and some late-period Stravinsky. The second half was the easy-to-embrace Brahms Second Symphony.

“The first half was really tough, not easy to listen to,” Weilerstein said. “And the Brahms 2 was so nice to listen to. But it made us appreciate the first half so much. It made us understand what they were going for.”

Taking that kind of care with programming is essential to foster a fondness for classical music in younger audiences. As Weilerstein said, “For a young person, the repertoire dictates.”

“It’s harder to appreciate Mozart than Shostakovich, which hits you in a visceral way,” he continued. “It’s not subverting the ideals of classical music, it’s not disrespect to Mozart or Beethoven or Haydn, to introduce people through this more visceral music.”

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Weilerstein’s introduction to classical music was a thorough one; both his parents are musicians. Weilerstein recalls coming, as a 3-year-old, to Aspen, where his father, Donald, was a violin teacher, and his mother, Vivian, was on the piano faculty. (Both are no longer affiliated with the Aspen Music Festival, but remain high-profile instructors and performers.) His sister, Alisa, older than Joshua by five years, is a notable cellist, who made her debut at 13, with the Cleveland Orchestra. (Alisa will be a soloist in the Aspen Chamber Symphony’s all-Shostakovich program on Aug. 19.)

But when Weilerstein was a kid, in Cleveland, none of this classical music atmosphere made much of an impact. He began studying violin at 6, “but completely not seriously,” he said. “I practiced 25 minutes a day, five days a week, three seasons a year. Never in summer. I just didn’t want to. It was a hobby. I was more interested in baseball.”

His eye-opening experience came at 15, when he was in a New England Conservatory Youth Orchestra on tour in Guatemala and Panama. “We played in a lot of gyms, for kids who had never heard classical music. The conductor would ask, How many of you have never heard an orchestra before? All of them would raise their hands. Sometimes we were the first orchestra to ever come to these cities. They had an appreciation that was amazing – there was nothing jaded or cynical about it.

“If you can get someone to fall in love with a piece the first time they hear it, that’s the ultimate fulfillment. Babies aren’t born knowing those first four notes to Beethoven’s Fifth. Having someone hear those notes for the first time, and getting that high, that’s all you need.”

The experience prompted Weilerstein to take his violin more seriously, and he entered the New England Conservatory. While there, he came in contact with Ludovic Morlot, a young French conductor who is now director of the Seattle Symphony. At the same time, Weilerstein saw some video clips of Carlos Kleiber, whose career as a conductor was limited, but much celebrated. The two experiences pulled Weilerstein toward conducting.

“There are eight or nine videos of him, conducting a very limited amount of repertoire,” Weilerstein said of Kleiber. “It was stunning; he was one of the most beautiful conductors I ever saw – to my ear, a beautiful understanding, the most wonderful imagery.”

One clip had Kleiber leading an orchestra in Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” Overture. He told the musicians that the proper way to play it was to imagine seeing a young woman with gorgeous legs walking down the street. She gives you a condescending look, dismissive look – which only makes you desire her more. For another piece, Kleiber instructed the orchestra to play “like you’re a kid tugging your mother into a candy store,” according to Weilerstein.

That is the kind of accessibility of experience Weilerstein wants to add to classical music.

“Those things are mind-blowing when you hear them come from a conductor,” he said. “Because no conductor talks this way.”


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