Cellist Alisa Weilerstein joins the National Symphony Orchestra as the guest artist in a program of two remarkable 20th-century works conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 5 in 1937 under Stalin's regime. Although he was, at the time, out of favor with the government and feared for his life, his powerful composition pleased those in power. Since his death in 1975, it has been recorded by more than two dozen major orchestras, among them the NSO led by Mstislav Rostropovich in 1994.

Edward Elgar's cello concerto is a brilliant contrast with its emotional and ethereal elements. Weilerstein first heard it as a child. She played the recording by her idol, Jacqueline du Pre, over and over again. It was not until she began learning it seriously that she put aside the recording and created her own interpretation.

Her dream of recording the concerto came true this past year when she performed it with conductor Daniel Barenboim, husband of the late du Pre. At his suggestion, she paired it with Elliott Carter's Cello Concerto.

"The Elgar Concerto is one of the great masterpieces of our literature," she said. "I find it to be a unique and personal work -- one man's personal tragedy closing the door on the Edwardian era. He wrote it right after World War I and shortly after his wife died. The incredible scope of emotions he shows in the work express that loss. He did not compose again for 14 years.

National Symphony Orchestra with Alisa Weilerstein
» Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW
» When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday
» Info: $10 to $85; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

"Rehearsing this work with Barenboim was a very intense experience. I learned an incalculable number of tips from him. It was a pleasure working with a coach who gives such eye-opening ideas that I want more from him. When he introduced me to Carter's work, I had never played it. On the surface, his concerto and Elgar's seemed diametrically opposed. Carter's is made of very angular, humorous and fragmented exploits to show the cello's capabilities.

"It was a great pleasure to meet him at the age of 103. I was thrilled by his spirit. I asked him if I could play for him, and he answered, 'I don't hear very well, but go ahead.' About seven seconds after I began playing, he stopped to correct me. I was happy to learn that he later heard my recording and loved it, but I was very sad to learn that he died two weeks later."

Initially, Carter had written the score of his concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and Barenboim to perform. A section of it was inspired by the moss garden in Kyoto, Japan, where water runs into bamboo tubes that snap when they are full of water. Carter put that sound in the concerto.

Since her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra at the age of 13, Weilerstein's schedule as soloist, recitalist and chamber musician was interrupted only by attending Columbia University, where she graduated in 2004 with a degree in Russian history. When she is not playing with major orchestras worldwide under celebrated conductors and at the Spoleto Festival USA, she frequently performs with her parents as the Weilerstein Trio, the trio-in-residence at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and her violinist/conductor brother Joshua Weilerstein. Her passion for modern music is reflected in her choice of works by Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and other contemporary composers.

Weilerstein has received numerous awards, among them an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2000, the 2006 Leonard Bernstein Award and the Lincoln Center's Martin E. Segal prize for exceptional achievement. Two years ago, she equated a cryptic email with a Nigerian spam until a follow-up telephone call confirmed that she had won a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship. As yet, she has not decided how to utilize the gift, but that will wait. For now, she is focused on the current tour that ends in Copenhagen, Denmark, and completing her next recording before her marriage in August to Venezuelan conductor Rafael Payare.

"We have worked together often and plan to continue doing so," she said. "I just finished half of an all-Dvorak recording and will soon complete the second half, eight miniature cello pieces and songs. It's scheduled to be out in September."