Classical supergroup invigorates Charlotte Concerts season

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan have flourishing individual careers, but they come together once or twice a year for mini-tours as a duo. Charlotte Concerts will bring them to Halton Theatre Friday night.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein and pianist Inon Barnatan have flourishing individual careers, but they come together once or twice a year for mini-tours as a duo. Charlotte Concerts will bring them to Halton Theatre Friday night. Jamie Jung

As in most arranged unions, the young man from Israel and the young woman from America had never spoken before the matchmaker brought them together in Boston.

“There was an instant chemistry, a unique connection,” says Alisa Weilerstein. “He’s a kind, open person, extremely intelligent. It’s almost eerie. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is when you are on such a similar wavelength.”

“Sometimes you meet people and feel you’ve met them before,” says Inon Barnatan. “It felt easy being with her; we didn’t need to talk about anything.”

Neither was looking for a partner when they crossed paths. But after dinner, on their first night together, they made beautiful music.

Chopin, that is. They played the Polish composer’s sonata, she on cello and he on piano, and realized they were meant – at least part of the time – to be a duo. That’s how they’re coming to Halton Theater Friday to close the Charlotte Concerts season, on a tour of just five U.S. cities.

Since their shared manager brought them together in 2008, they have rocketed off on solo careers. Weilerstein, who was born in Rochester, N.Y., became a MacArthur Foundation fellow and won the BBC Music Magazine Recording of the Year Award for her disc of concertos by Edward Elgar and Elliott Carter. Barnatan, who’s from Tel Aviv, is in the first of three seasons as the New York Philharmonic’s first Artist in Association, a gig that provides multiple concerto and chamber music appearances.

But there’s joy in a duo neither can get as a soloist.

“You grow with a person musically,” says Weilerstein. “Before this, my growth had always been individual, though I played chamber music with my parents growing up and do now occasionally. I had never been in a long-term relationship with a peer. If we don’t see each other for a few months and come back together, we start to run with ideas unconsciously.”

“We’re both spontaneous in our music making, happy to let things happen in the moment rather than plan too much ahead,” says Barnatan. “One of the fun things about playing with Alisa is that I can do something different, and she will immediately catch on and do something different, too. It always feels alive.”

In Charlotte, they’ll do three masterworks: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5 for Cello and Piano, Rachmaninov’s only cello sonata and an adaptation of Franz Schubert’s Fantasia in C for violin and piano. (Says Weilerstein, “The Schubert sounds gorgeous on the cello. It’s extremely challenging technically for the violin, but even more so for me. The pyrotechnics are interesting to watch.”)

The newest and strangest piece – call it a rolling world premiere – comes from Joseph Hallman, a composer she champions. Winston-Salem will hear part of it Thursday at Wake Forest University; Charlotte hears part (maybe even the same part) Friday; then it goes to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sonoma, Cal., and Boston.

“It really is a journal of dreams,” Weilerstein semi-explains. “Joe wanted to make it personal for each performer; we choose the order and play it as a stream of consciousness.”

Barnatan elaborates: “We’re doing three movements for a total of 15 minutes from the piece, and we may change the order from place to place. Things shouldn’t always be preplanned, right? One title is ‘London, a nondescript airport, Angelina Jolie as a Serbian.’ Joe has an imaginative way of translating those (ideas) into moods.”

If their playing grips you, you can catch both in the chamber music series at Spoleto Festival USA this spring. They’re playing many pieces apart and sharing the stage twice, in Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor (with eight other musicians) and in Chopin’s Cello Sonata, the first piece they played in concert.

“It was part of a celebrity series in Boston, a live radio transmission,” Barnatan says. “After we played, the interviewer said, ‘You have obviously been together for a long time.’ So we said, ‘Ummm, yeah, about a year and a half.’ We didn’t want to contradict her. And it felt like we had!”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Inon Barnatan/Alisa Weilerstein

Charlotte Concerts ends its season with the pairing of the Israeli pianist and American cellist. The duo will play Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5, Rachmaninov’s Sonata in G Minor, Joseph Hallman’s “DreamLog” and Schubert’s Fantasia in C, D. 934.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday.

WHERE: Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave.

TICKETS: $35-$55.

DETAILS: 704-330-6534 or charlotteconcerts.org.