It’s okay to steal, playing silently, and the Riddle of the Sphinx – Piatigorsky Masterclass with Laurence Lesser

The Piatigorsky festival ended on Sunday, but we have another treat for you! Dr. Hoefs gives us a recap and thoughtful analysis of the masterclass conducted by Laurence Lesser.

From Dr. Lars Hoefs on 03/11/2012 at the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, Los Angeles

Besides teaching one of the nation’s most respected cello classes at the New England Conservatory for decades, Laurence Lesser studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and was in fact his teaching assistant at the University of Southern California. His class Sunday afternoon began with a performance of the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G Minor, Op. 19, by Laura Gaynon, student of Jennifer Culp at the San Francisco Conservatory, with the fantastic Robert Thies at the piano. Lesser brought her attention to the many accents in the cello part that fall just before the downbeat, recounting his lessons with Piatigorsky and the great man’s explanations of “Armenian accents,” that is, how Armenians speaking Russian in the early 20th century put the accent on the wrong syllable. Lesser even indulged in a hilarious Piatigorsky impression – I get the feeling he’s had a lot of practice on it. Lesser encouraged Gaynon to pizz almost “ponticello” for the opening pizzicato, to achieve the dark, malicious quality in the music. He drew a wonderful parallel to the hammering anvils in Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold. Continuing with the slow movement, Lesser repeated a famous if perhaps contestable story of an exchange between violinist Nathan Milstein and Rachmaninoff, in which Milstein asked him to write a violin sonata, and Rachmaninoff replied, I don’t need to, I have the cello! Lesser worked with Gaynon on rubato, explaining that the term literally means “stolen,” inciting her to ignore the piano part, to not even try and play together. As his ideal model for this movement, Lesser recommended that everyone listen to a live Carnegie Hall recording with Rostropovich and Horowitz, pointing to Horowitz’s abandon, the right and left hands never even playing together. Former Lesser student Julie Jung had posted the recording on facebook only a few hours later, here it is on youtube:

Next we heard the slow movement of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto performed by Lavena Johnson, student of Amit Peled at the Peabody Conservatory. Lesser talked about how this movement is a reaction to the first movement, which is like a machine without rest, or as in the words of Schnittke, “no touch of humanity.” Johnson was having trouble conveying the character of the slow movement, which Lesser explained as weary, ready to cry, so he used a trick that Piatigorsky always used with his students – to play without touching the bow to the string. He actually had her play a few bars this way, without making sound, obviously, in order for her to imagine the sound and character. When she returned to producing sound, everyone in the hall noticed the improvement. Indeed Terry King’s new book “Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist” tells how a 6-year-old Piatigorsky used two sticks to play the cello of his imagination after hearing the instrument for the first time. Lesser told a story of how a young Andre Previn was preparing to perform Mozart with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Previn went to meet the Maestro in his hotel room where Szell asked the pianist to perform for him, on his coffee table. At some point Szell remarked, “I don’t like the way you phrased that,” to which Previn retorted, “I’m not used to the touch of your coffee table.” Gaynon had performed the violent outbursts that occur in the slow movement of the Shostakovich at a faster tempo, as many cellists do. Lesser extended to her the counsel he’d received from Natalia Gutman, suggesting that by holding the same tempo without speeding up, the outbursts are in fact much more powerful. She took the advice, and it bore powerful fruit. Lesser also advised that when you find something you do well technically, you can use it to cure other problems. This he illustrated with her bow stroke from the beginning of the movement, which she did well in the upper half of the bow but not in the lower, admonishing her to imitate the success in the lower half as well. And as the hall was filled with cellists, Lesser couldn’t help but repeat another Piatigorskyism: “Never play for the cellists in the audience – they always have another idea.”

Last was Danish cellist Carl-Oscar Osterlind, student of Ralph Kirshbaum at the University of Southern California, performing the first movement of Beethoven’s A Major Sonata. Lesser posed three questions: What is the role of vibrato for string instruments in Beethoven? What is development? and What does it mean to start a piece alone? Osterlind’s performance had relied on a consistent vibrato on every note, so Lesser’s first question led him to consider playing with less vibrato, or no vibrato in certain parts, which made instant sense with the piano part. In asking what is development, Lesser guided us through the remarkable development section of this movement. He explained that the development section of a classical sonata is like starting out lost (most obvious in key), using every bit of information (motivic material) to find your way back home, which is the recapitulation. The metaphor was poignantly illustrated as Lesser talked us through the entire development section, showing how Beethoven is a great dramatist taking us on a journey then delivering us home. He also showed how one of its themes seems to quote an aria from Bach’s St John Passion, an aria with a considerable obbligato solo for the viola da gamba, perhaps too good to be coincidence? In his last question, asking what it means to start this piece cello all alone, Lesser encouraged Osterlind to approach the work as though the ink were still wet on the page, as if he was the first to perform this new work. Lesser talked about how the work takes a while to reveal itself, the opening unaccompanied cello posing a riddle, like the mythical sphinx. The piano then poses the riddle in bar 13, and after the cello’s brief cadenza in bar 24, the movement finally is revealed. And with the authority of Zeus, Lesser said that Beethoven can be beautiful, but never pretty. Looking at a portrait on my wall of the great composer, I wholeheartedly agree – or was Lesser talking about Beethoven’s music?

Special thanks to Dr. Lars Hoefs, who was recently appointed Professor of Cello and Music History at Sao Paulo State University at Campinas (UNICAMP), Brazil. Learn more about him at

3 Responses to It’s okay to steal, playing silently, and the Riddle of the Sphinx – Piatigorsky Masterclass with Laurence Lesser

  1. Harold Johanson December 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    I was at the masterclass summarized above and enjoyed it in the hall and enjoyed re-living it in the excellent summary above. There is only one small detail I’d like to correct which is the last name of the cellist who played Shostakovich for Mr. Lesser. Lavena’s last name is Johanson rather than Johnson. I know this because I’m a Johanson, too! (Lavena’s Dad)
    Lavena continues to study with Mr. Peled at Peabody. She enjoyed her experience at the Piatigorsky Festival a great deal.

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