ARTICLE: Alisa Weilerstein’s groundbreaking ‘Fragments’ cello project returns to La Jolla
November 12, 2023
San Diego Symphony and La Jolla Music society will co-present ‘Fragments 2,’ Weilerstein’s unconventionally structured concert with innovative lighting and stage design
Internationally acclaimed cellist Alisa Weilerstein’s multi-year project, “Fragments,” is breaking the classical-music mold in many ways.
As San Diegans who attended “Fragments 1” here in March know, the concert mixed snippets of Bach’s Cello Suites with short pieces by contemporary composers. The performance also boasted innovative lighting and stage design.
“I wanted it to be a very wide range of musical voices,” Weilerstein said, speaking recently from Montreal. “I also wanted there to be a variety of backgrounds, ages and stages of career.”
The mold-breaking also occurred in the program structure. Audience members were given a list of composers — in no particular order — whose pieces were performed alongside Bach’s. Only after the concert were detailed programs distributed that identified the specific pieces of music.
“Fragments 2,” with new compositions and redesigned staging, will be co-presented by the San Diego Symphony and La Jolla Music Society Thursday at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall.
Weilerstein was successful in achieving diversity among the 27 composers she will showcase — five or six for each edition — alongside Bach.
“I’m proud to say the youngest composer in this is under 30 and the oldest is 84,” she said. “It also is gender-balanced, racially, and ethnically — I think there are 10 or 11 different nationalities. And the musical styles are highly varied.”
This detailed-oriented approach to diversity exemplifies the labor-intensive, carefully thought-out work of “Fragments” as a whole. For “Fragments 2,” Weilerstein created an emotional arc distinctive from the first iteration.
For all six “Fragments,” Weilerstein chose the order of the contemporary compositions and Bach’s work for each one-hour program.
“I’m joking, but I felt like I was playing God with the pieces a little bit!” she said, adding that the emotional arc is paramount.
“That was the most fun and the most challenging aspect of it. It’s also the one that I almost tore my hair out because it’s so crucial. But I really enjoyed doing it.”
Epiphanies are fun
Weilerstein found herself in a funk during the pandemic. She was reeling from the loss of her scheduled concerts and tours, and from witnessing the pandemic’s damage to the performing arts.
After a walk in the woods with her husband, San Diego Symphony Music Director Rafael Payare, and their young daughter Ariadna, Weilerstein decided not to “waste a good crisis.”
“Epiphanies don’t happen often, but they are fun,” she said. “It came as a flash: ‘How are we connecting with one another?’ In my (field) of concert music, why don’t we connect better with our audiences?
“‘Fragments’ is about connecting — performer and audience, familiar and new, compositions from today and the past.”
Weilerstein gathered names of contemporary composers and listened to many recordings. She also recruited a team of experts to help realize her vision. Director Elkhanah Pulitzer has worked with many music and theater organizations, including the San Francisco Opera and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
New York-based Seth Reiser, a scenic and lighting designer, collaborated with Pulitzer on Grammy-winning bassist, singer and composer Esperanza Spalding’s “Twelve Spells” American tour. Costume designer Carlos J. Soto and artistic producer and consultant Hanako Yamaguchi complete Weilerstein’s “Fragments” team.
“Elkhanah and Seth respond to the music visually,” she explained. “We spent a lot of time in tech rehearsals. The timing’s important — basically every fragment goes to the next. The visual responds to the music in a deferential way.”
Payare remembers the genesis of “Fragments” well.
“We were just talking about it and then the project started having legs and expanding,” he said in a separate interview from Montreal. “We’re not only a married couple, but we respect each other artistically. I saw how she was putting it together. It’s great to see how fantastic this project has become.”
Thursday’s La Jolla concert at the Baker-Baum is a part of the inaugural edition of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music. The festival was co-founded by Payare, Los Angeles Philharmonic Music Director Gustavo Dudamel and San Francisco Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.
The festival, which concludes Nov. 19, will feature concerts at more than 80 California venues from Fort Bragg in Northern California to multiple locations in San Diego. During the festival’s 16-day run, 33 new compositions will have their world premieres, along with 188 pieces composed over the past five years.
Because the statewide initiative was designed to showcase emerging composers, the surprise-filled “Fragments” fits in nicely.
“I asked people to be upfront with me after ‘Fragments 1’,” she said. “They told me it took them a few minutes to get used to the fact that they wouldn’t know every note of what I was playing. But then, once they did, they had a much more visceral experience. That is exactly what I was after.”
This month, Weilerstein will perform “Fragments 1 and 2” in different parts of the country before coming to La Jolla. A “Fragments 3” concert has not yet been announced, but she will do “Fragments 4 and 2” in April at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Even with multiple performances, the cellist — whose second daughter, Elina, was born in early 2022 — hopes audiences come expectation-free.
“Some people will be more comfortable, hopefully, with the format,” she said. “So that they’ll be prepared to let go immediately rather than taking time to do so.
“I would prefer that people in the concert hall are without a program in front of them. ‘Fragments 2’ is a completely different world, but the element of surprise will still be there. It will be an even more powerful experience.”
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein: ‘Fragments 2’
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 459-3728
This event is a part of the California Festival: A Celebration of New Music, a state-wide initiative from Nov. 3 to Nov. 19. cafestival.org
Wood is a freelance writer.