As she prepares for her Australian concerts, the American cellist talks Shostakovich, Elliot Carter and playing Elgar for Daniel Barenboim.

You’re the first to record the Elgar concerto with Daniel Barenboim for decades, since his wife Jacqueline du Pré. Tough act to follow?

I’d played for Barenboim a few times over several months and right before I was going to meet him again I ran into the conductor who had introduced us, Asher Fisch, who told me, “You should really play the Elgar for him – you’d learn so much.” And I said: “No, anything but the Elgar, absolutely anything else!” But I went to play it for him at Carnegie Hall, and I had never been more nervous in my whole life.

Coupling Elgar with Elliott Carter seems an unlikely match; what was it like working with the centenarian composer?

I learned the piece for the recording and fell in love with it. It goes well with the Elgar because they are so diametrically opposed: Elgar is so nostalgic, so tragic; Carter is gestural, very wild and cheeky and the language is totally different as soon as you hear the first two notes. In person he was such a positive, lucid man. Being around him helped me understand the character of the piece.

You’re playing Shostakovich’s First Concerto in Australia. How does your degree in Russian history and your interest in Russian culture colour your interpretation?

I did actually get to play it for Rostropovich when I was 22. He talked about the language of Shostakovich and told me I was playing
it too Romantically, like everything was out on the table, whereas the way one had to survive in Shostakovich’s time was to have a poker face even if on the inside you were in the worst agony you could possibly imagine.

What’s special about the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, your partners in Australia?

They are a fantastic combination of total refinement, attention to detail, but also an incredible fire and freshness and joy. Whenever I do a concerto with an orchestra I normally play in the first half then go out to hear the symphony in the second half, but with the Mahler Chamber I’m always rushing to go listen. You’re going to love them.

How have things changed for you since you won a MacArthur ‘genius grant’ in 2011?

I was one of the youngest recipients, and certainly I feel lucky because every project now is one I’m excited about. The money has been banked – I haven’t decided how to use it yet!

Alisa Weilerstein plays at the Sydney Opera House on June 11 and Melbourne Recital Centre on June 12