Monday, March 12, 2012

The Piatigorsky Cello Festival

By Andy Fein and Angie Newgren

Gregor Piatigorsky, affectionately known as "Grisha", was a giant of a man (about 6'5") and a giant of cellists in the mid twentieth century. With hands as large as his stature, he played his cello like it was a supple toy. And he made amazing music! Ivan Galamian once declared Piatigorsky "the greatest string player of all time!"

Piatigorsky playing the Chopin Sonata


It is only fitting that one of the  music schools that he loved so much, the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music, should start a cello festival in his name and in his honor. Over nine days in March, they are "bringing together masters of the cello and young cellists from around the world for a unique celebration of the cello, its music and its musicians" through the first ever Piatigorsky International Cello Festival.


Ralph Kirshbaum, the artistic director at USC Thorton, and initiator of the new festival, chose an underlying theme of "coming together of diverse musical values and points of view." Below is a video of Ralph Kirshbaum introducing the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival.


In 1929, when Piatigorsky was 26, he first arrived to the United States. A little over a decade later he was teaching at several universities throughout the U.S. One of those schools was the University of Southern California, where he remained through the end of his life. Grisha was a legend of a performer for the world, and especially in the Los Angeles culture.

Gregor Piatigorsky

Six of the artists chosen to perform the 2012 festival are former students of Gregor Piatigorsky. They are Terry King, Laurence Lesser, Mischa Maisky, Jeffrey Solow, Nathaniel Rosen, and Raphael Wallfisch. These former students will also be performing with Piatigorsky's grandson, Evan Drachman. Evan usually plays on one of his grandfather's Stradivarius cellos.


Throughout this year's festivities there will be 4 orchestral concerts, 9 chamber music events, 15 master classes, and films and discussions on Piatigorsky. The Los Angeles Philharmonic enthusiastically supports the Piatigorsky Festival. They will be a big part of the opening events and will appear in events throughout the festival.

A concert with the Israel Philharmonic. From left- Chaim Taub, concertmaster,  Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky

Aside from being known as one of the greatest musicians of all time, Piatigorsky lived a fascinating life. He was born in Russia in the early 1900s, and at a young age started playing cello in cafes. He single handedly financially supported his parents and siblings. He accepted a scholarship to the Moscow Conservatory before he was even 10 years old, and by 15 he was the principle cellist of the Bolshoi Opera Orchestra and a member of the Beethoven String Quartet (now known as the Lenin String Quartet). During and after the Russian Revolution, Soviet authorities strictly controlled the border and would not allow Piatigorsky travel out of the country to continue studying and performing his music. So he smuggled himself and his cello into Poland. Luckily, he avoided being killed. Free from Russia,  he was able to travel the world for performances and education in music. In 1929 he arrived in the United States, where he continued his musical growth and performance.

Gregor Piatigorsky
The Piatigorsky Festival is ongoing through March 18. If you are in the Los Angeles area, try to hear some of the wonderful concerts. Grisha would want you to. You will hear some of the world's greatest cellists in a setting that is synonymous with legendary cello performances.

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