Scandinavia, the Weilersteins and the Payares

Joshua Weilerstein has been announced as the new Chief Conductor of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra in Denmark – the latest chapter in his family’s substantial Scandinavian love affair

Joshua Weilerstein conducts the Orchestre de Chambre de Lausanne (Yuri Pires Tavares)

It’s great news that Joshua Weilerstein will assume the Chief Conductorship of the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra from the 2023-24 Season. He is a capable conductor who takes charge of an ambitious orchestra with a stunning concert hall in Musikkens Hus – one that gets a fair bit of text in The Northern Silence by dint of its striking Gehry-like design and the transformative effect it has had on the locality since it opened in 2014.

Bijoux Aalborg is a special city, brimming with life and creativity. It has a bold Alvar Aalto-designed art gallery, an architectural museum built in homage to its most famous son, Jørn Utzon (who designed the Sydney Opera House) and a large student population. For those who care about such things, it also has a heavenly, crystalline little airport.

So, exciting times. But gratifying ones, too, given Weilerstein’s varied and multifaceted links with Scandinavia – which apparently run in the family. The Weilersteins, it seems, have the Nordic region under their skin.

Joshua won the Malko conducting competition in Copenhagen in 2009, which bagged him contracts to conduct orchestras throughout the Nordic region over a period of years (it took him to Aalborg for the first time in 2011). He has since recorded with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Oslo Philharmonic.

For the Weilerstein family, it didn’t end there. The next Malko competition – in 2012 – was won by Rafael Payare, currently in his first season as Music Director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (he recently presided over a fine run of Toscas at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen). Payare is married to Weilerstein’s sister, the cellist Alisa Weilerstein. ‘I sure know a lot about the Malko Competition,’ Alisa once told me.

Back in 2012, Alisa wanted to get to Copenhagen to see her future husband participate in the Malko final, having played a concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London the night before. But she was bumped off her flight and ended up getting a connection via Trondheim, Norway. ‘I had never heard of Trondheim. But I saw these wild untamed landscapes and I thought, “this is a really fascinating place; I have to come back here,”’ she told me in 2018.

Come back she did. When Payare was contracted to conduct the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra as part of his Malko prize package, Alisa travelled with him. Without much to do as her partner rehearsed the orchestra, she was shown around the town by Kathryn Hjesvold of The Trondheim Soloists, Trondheim’s zippy string orchestra (Hjesvold is a British former IMG agent).

A relationship was born that came to fruition in 2018, when Alisa was appointed Artistic Partner at The Trondheim Soloists. She quickly released a recording of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht with the ensemble that was awarded a Gramophone Editor’s Choice, and embarked upon a tour with it that took her back to Copenhagen.

‘I’ve done some of my very best music making here in Norway,’ Alisa told me when we met in Trondheim. ‘The musicians [of The Trondheim Soloists] like to rehearse, to work and to explore new ideas and repertoire. There is an openness to absolutely everything, it’s liberating.’

Musikkens Hus, Aalborg, designed by Coop Himmelb(l)au of Austria

I hope her brother finds a similar attitude at the top of Jutland, the bit of Denmark that gazes across the Kattegat Sea towards the more dramatic landscape of southern Norway.

I’ve always been impressed by the Aalborg Symphony Orchestra’s programming and I love spending time in its concert hall. It has been without a Chief Conductor since 2015 (Michael Schønwandt has been keeping the ensemble on its toes with regular visits as principal guest conductor in the meantime) and has clearly bided its time. The ensemble also celebrates its 80th birthday in 2023, just in time for Weilerstein’s arrival.

More significantly, Weilerstein’s appointment consolidates a heartening trend among Denmark’s regional orchestras – away from appointing perceived ‘prestige’ Chief Conductors, who come with impressive central European CVs but are nearing the end of their careers and are apparently not too interested in examining what a symphony orchestra can be.

Weilerstein has the dynamism to put a different sort of focus on his orchestra in Aalborg – one that matches the flair and connectivity of its new home. I hope the orchestra will flourish under him, and see no reason why it shouldn’t. Either way, I look forward to watching and listening.