By Stephanie Powell
The second International Piatigorsky Cello Festival delivers all-star talent and a celebration of all things cello
Sitting adjacent to Ramo Hall at the University of Southern California after giving an afternoon master class in late May, cellist Raphael Wallfisch recounts memories of his former teacher and mentor Gregor Piatigorsky and lights up brighter with each passing thought as if he had just seen him earlier today.
It has been 40 years since Wallfisch studied at USC under Piatigorsky, in classes that he describes as lasting all day, where students ate their lunches in between stops in the music.
“Time wise he was very generous,” Wallfisch says with a smile, “a lesson didn’t last an hour, or only 50 minutes. I don’t remember him leaving the room ever—[pianist] Doris Stevenson would feed him cigarettes—we’d be here all day.”
Wallfisch flew into Los Angeles and circled back to his former stomping ground at USC to partake in the second International Piatigorsky Cello Festival, a two-week long event that revels in all things cello while honoring Piatigorsky’s name.
The relationships that are at work [in the mass cello ensemble] go on, and there’s a level of respect and humanity that goes into making something like that work.
The festival, spearheaded by Ralph Kirshbaum in 2012, takes place every four years. Selecting the location was easy—Piatigorsky taught at the university for 14 years. In 2008, Kirshbaum joined the USC staff as the Piatigorsky chair, which tasked him with maintaining a 20-year-old Piatigorsky seminar at the campus.
“Piatigorsky was really, in terms of the cello, the first great artist in the 21st century who opened the way for cellists to be soloists,” Kirshbaum says, adding that although he did not know him personally, he did play for him in a master class in his youth.
“He was a great enough human being to recognize that and I think that he passed that along to his students. It served as an example for everyone in my generation. I mean, he was my idol when I was a boy.
“I studied with a teacher who had been a student of Piatigorsky, which is how I came to play for him in a master class. It’s like ripples—you have the students who are right there at the epicenter, but then you have those ripples that go out.
“I doubt there were any cellists, certainly of my generation, that weren’t impacted by the personality, the character, and the artistry of Piatigorsky.”
Born in Ekaterinoslav, now Ukraine, in 1903, Piatigorsky first made his way to the US in 1929 when he performed with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. He bounced around, teaching at esteemed institutions from the Curtis Institute of Music to Tanglewood, until ultimately winding up at USC, where he remained until his death in 1976. Wallfisch refers to his former teacher as “one of the real members of the Golden Age of string playing”—the generosity of his warm and playful spirit left a mark just as influential as his teaching and talent.
“I enjoyed it,” Kirshbaum says of running the 20-year-old Piatigorsky seminar, “but having had the experience of developing a cello festival [in Manchester]—that was in my DNA. I simply said to the dean that the seminar, as useful as it’s been, has run its course, and why don’t we have a festival?”
The first festival left an impact—with the MVPs of the cello world offering daily performances, master classes, and lectures. The staff immediately jumped at planning the second installment in 2016.
“It’s even denser than it was before,” Kirshbaum says of this year’s festival. He programmed repertoire from classical to contemporary, and recruited 26 all-star cellists, including a handful of Piatigorsky’s former students, to congregate at the campus.
This year’s iteration offered a lunchtime series, a quintet-plus series, more than 90 works to be performed, and a mass cello ensemble—a collective of more than 100 cellists.
“We’ve experimented artistically with other avenues to explore what the cello has given to all of us,” Kirshbaum says of this year’s programming, noting that the experience of performing in the mass cello ensemble in particular offers life-changing lessons. “The relationships that are at work there—between the great artists, the established artists, and the next generation of younger artists who are a part of the ensemble—those relationships go on, and there’s a level of respect and humanity that goes into making something like that work.”
There is certainly an abundance of cellists ambling around the USC campus and its surrounding area—I’ve never seen so many cello cases in my life. While sitting in a hotel lobby across the street from USC, within ten minutes I notice cellists Zuill Bailey, Frans Helmerson, and Laurence Lesser causally stroll in and out of the hotel, each between a few gaggles of ten-plus cellists.
The festival boasts 26 guest artists, which includes Matt Haimovitz, Mischa Maisky, Yo-Yo Ma, Jeffrey Solow, Sol Gabetta, David Geringas, Thomas Demenga, and many more. Eighteen of the 26 agreed to perform in the mass cello ensemble—sharing the stage with both renowned and budding artists.
“I am always impressed when someone like Ralph [Kirshbaum] has the ability to create a new festival everywhere he goes,” cellist Sol Gabetta says of orchestrating such a massive festival. “When I came today and I saw 100 cellists here, it’s impressive to see not only the biggest names, but to see everybody mixed together—the younger, the middle, and the older generation. This brings the love for the music together, which I don’t think for other instruments—it doesn’t exist [quite] like that, no?”
“So far we’re getting less lost than before,” Wallfisch says when I ask about how rehearsal is going. The 100-plus cellists have been practicing two pieces of repertoire together—Threads & Traces, a premiere by Anna Clyne, and Villa Lobos’ Brachianas Brasileiras No. 1. “It’s so funny because I’ve got Mischa Maisky on one side, and then Jeff [Solow] on the other side, and then Ralph [Kirshbaum] and Frans [Helmerson] in front of me. It’s quite a fun line up,” he says. “I think we’ve just got to behave ourselves,” he adds with a laugh, “because there’s an element of ‘naughty boys’ going on. There’s safety in numbers but I’m well aware that we’re going to feel very exposed in Disney Hall.”
By the way Wallfisch describes lessons with Piatigorsky, it’s likely the pedagogue would have been amused by his former students’ bad behavior. There was nothing textbook about Piatigorsky’s teaching, Wallfisch says, and he would teach by illustrating with stories, never by giving directions.
“He possessed the most amazing, warm, and generous personality,” he says, “and you cannot exaggerate—you couldn’t say enough about it. He had a perception of people that was unique. I never met anybody like that—that’s what made him such a good teacher, because there are many people who are pedagogues who can teach a method and say, ‘Do this, do that,’ and you will come out as that, but he was able to treat every person as an individual. He never taught in one way.
“What we didn’t realize at the time was that he was planting seeds that would continue to grow today—I mean were talking 40 years ago that I was here in Ramo [Hall] playing here with everybody—but it’s as alive as it was then, his words and wisdom.”
In a master class Wallfisch leads, offering advice to cellist Yoon-Kyung Cho, it’s clear that Piatigorsky’s humor and spirit resonates in Wallfisch’s teaching style.
“It’s the opposite of polite music,” he says of Beethoven’s Sonata in C major, Op. 102, No. 1. “It’s rude! It’s out there,” he tells Cho, hoping to ignite passionate bowing and execution.
The audience is filled with fellow cellists following along and leafing through the music.
To a cellist earlier in the proceedings, he offers: “That note is too long—it’s very generous of you,” he says with a laugh—inspiring laughter among the audience and the cellist herself, “but it’s too long.”
That humor and liveliness defines the festival’s unique character. “It’s a celebration of the cello,” Kirshbaum says. “It’s a big temple that we have. [The artists] choose a piece that they love and are passionate about and they show it to the audience.” Wallfisch adds that he is most looking forward to participating in a panel discussion on Piatigorsky with some of his former classmates.
“Very quickly the younger generation doesn’t know who Piatigorsky was, and you have to direct them to watch and listen. It’s really important in our hearts to know the history of our players.
“The Golden Age—it hasn’t gotten better than that.”
Cellist Sol Gabetta Debuts with LA Phil
In her debut performance with the LA Philharmonic, cellist Sol Gabetta offered a show-stopping performance that demanded an encore. As a part of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, Gabetta performed Martinu’s Cello Concerto No. 1 under the direction of conductor Leonard Slatkin.
“It was amazing for me to play with the orchestra and to debut with Leonard Slatkin. He is so special because to me, in America, he is like my musical father,” Gabetta says. “If he has the opportunity he takes me with him and is always open to doing different repertoire, which a lot of people don’t want to do.” It’s very helpful for a soloist to debut with a new orchestra already having a relationship with the conductor, Gabetta says as we sit among 100 chairs after she’s finished rehearsal for the mass-cello-ensemble performance.
“I must say the orchestra was incredible—fantastic! Because this concerto is extremely tricky and very delicate,” Gabetta says of the Martinu. “There is a lot of dialogue between the cello and the winds, for example, and it’s extremely difficult. The orchestra was so agile—they were really incredible. But that is what is so impressive for me with American orchestras—from the first rehearsal they are already so professional and prepared. I was very excited to make my debut with a piece like that—you never know if some people won’t like the composer or the piece, but they were so positive.
“And to me it was like a party—a musical party.” Slatkin primed the audience for an exciting afternoon program: The LA Phil started off with a performance of Rossini’s William Tell Overture, followed by Martinu’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in E minor with Gabetta at the helm. She played with noticeable force—passionately leaning into each note, smiling while navigating through complex passages. In between the Allegro moderato and Andante poco moderato movements, she ripped off broken bow hair with a smile, and nodded at Slatkin to signal she was ready to continue. The concerto was a LA Phil debut—both it and Gabetta received a standing ovation.
Yo-Yo Ma Sells Out Disney Hall—in a T-Shirt
“Do you like my outfit?” Yo-Yo Ma asked a sold-out crowd at Walt Disney Concert Hall as he walked onstage after intermission. He’s wearing perfectly ironed trousers, shined shoes . . . and a T-shirt. “I thought it was hot in here,” he said with a laugh, “and not because there are so many cellists in the audience.”
He’s taken to the mic to introduce the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, which he calls “a great festival.” Ma and longtime recital partner Kathryn Stott then performed music from their latest album, The Arc of Life.
Ma gave an arresting performance—bouncing along with wild pizzicato passages and leaning back with ease during a delicate performance of Sibelius’ Was It a Dream?, Op. 37, No. 4. He turned the pages of his sheet music seemingly out of habit, his eyes closed or looking up at the ceiling or audience.
The evening’s program included the “Arc of Life” Suite, Shostakovich’s Sonata in D minor, Op. 40, Il bell’Antonio (Tema III) by Giovanni Sollima, who was present in the audience, and whom Ma didn’t hesitate to bring onstage after his performance of the work, and finally Franck’s Sonata in A major.
The ever-humble Ma made sure to give Stott her praise: “Kathryn introduced me to Giovanni [Sollima’s] music, and for that I’m forever grateful,” he said as he introduced the piece. “And for years of collaborating and playing together—she really puts up with a lot,” he said with a laugh. “Plus, if you look at her sheet music, she has, like, 1,800 more notes than I do.”