The classical music scene has never lacked for spectacular cellists–it seems that the instrument lends itself to the creation of great musicians. While violinists have historically been the headliners (think Paganini, Kreisler, Sarasate, Heifetz), cellists have evolved into a different breed of performer, often less flashy but with great substance. As modern cellists have evolved into ever more-dazzling technicians, the cello-playing scene is bursting with exciting talent–so much so that the great players of generations past sometimes, seemingly impossibly, fall by the wayside a bit. One of the greatest musical and cello-playing talents to have graced the concert hall was the Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Born in 1903 and passing away in 1976, Piatigorsky’s career was almost shocking in its meteoric rise and extraordinary staying power. The facts are known to many musicians, but they bear repeating and refreshing in our memories.
Born in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine), he studied violin and piano with his father as a child. After seeing and hearing the cello, he became fixated on the idea of becoming a cellist and constructed a toy cello with two apples and pineapple. He was given a real cello when he was seven. Shortly thereafter he won a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory, studying with Alfred von Glehn, and Anatoliy Brandukov, all the while earning money for his family by playing in local cafés. The Russian Revolution began when he was only 13. At 15, he was hired as the principal cellist for the Bolshoi Theater.
The Soviet authorities would not allow him to travel abroad to further his studies, so he smuggled himself and his cello into Poland on a cattle train with a group of artists. One of the women was a heavy-set soprano who, when the border guards started shooting at them, grabbed Piatigorsky and his cello. The cello, both sadly and fortunately, was the only casualty. After his escape to Poland, he studied briefly in Berlin and Leipzig, with Hugo Becker and Julius Klengel, playing in a trio in a Russian café to put food on the table. The patrons of the café included Emanuel Feuermann and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler heard him and hired him as the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic. Piatigorsky was then only just 18 years old.
Piatigorsky’s career only went up from there. The rest of the career–the fame, the years in the United States–is mostly familiar to modern audiences. The entirety of the man’s career and artistic output is difficult to exaggerate in its importance and musical achievement, and it is to honor him that the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California has teamed with the Colburn School, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to create the first Piatigorsky International Cello Festival. The festival will open with a concert on March 9th. The concert will feature performances by six leading international cellists, including the American premiere of Thomas Demenga’s double concerto, “Relations” for two cellos, percussion and prepared piano, performed by the composer and student Sayaka Selina. The concerto will be accompanied by the Piatigorsky Festival Orchestra led by noted conductor Hugh Wolff. Other works slated for the opening concert include Antonio Lysy and LA Phil principal cellist Peter Stumpf performing Vivaldi’s Double Concerto, Jian Wang performing Haydn’s Concerto in D Major, 2011 International Tchaikovsky Competition First Prize and Gold Medal-winner Narek Hakhnazaryan performing Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, and France’s Instrumental Soloist of the Year Jean-Guihen Queyras performing Haydn’s Concerto in C Major.
The festival’s scale only goes mounts from there. The festival will stretch over ten days and includes twenty-two artists representing twelve countries, all coming together for orchestral concerts, chamber music performances, master classes and interactive events. The names are undeniably big: Frans Helmerson, Gary Hoffman, Steven Isserlis, Ralph Kirshbaum, Ronald Leonard, Mischa Maisky, Miklós Perényi, Jian Wang and Alisa Weilerstein are all on the list. Six of Piatigorsky’s outstanding former students, Terry King, Laurence Lesser, Mischa Maisky, Jeffrey Solow, Nathaniel Rosen, and Raphael Wallfisch, are participating in this festival together, along with his grandson, cellist Evan Drachman. They will all appear together on the evening of March 16th.
The head of the festival is American cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, who currently holds the Piatigorsky chair at USC’s Thornton School of Music. Piatigorsky, who served as faculty at USC during his extraordinary time in Los Angeles, was Kirshbaum’s childhood idol. Of the festival, he says, “How gratifying and exciting it is, as the proud holder of the chair bearing his name at the USC Thornton School of Music, to help perpetuate the Piatigorsky name and legacy by means of this celebratory festival. Bolstered by the enthusiasm and support of my many esteemed colleagues in the musical community of this vibrant city, I look forward to welcoming cellists and music lovers from around the world to Los Angeles in March 2012.” The theme of the festival, fittingly, is “coming together,” and the various artists and musicians at the festival will bring together diverse music and backgrounds to pay a well-deserved tribute to one of the most globally important cellists the world has ever seen.