Gregor Piatigorsky, the Russian-born American cellist who was regarded as one of the great Russian patriarchs of the cello, harbored a fervent desire – “to show the beauty and nobility of the cello’s voice the world over”. This was his mission in life, and with the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival now emerging as one of North America’s most important music festivals, it’s clear that the world has noticed.
The inaugural Festival was held in Los Angeles in March 2012, and this evening sees the launch of a 10-day celebration of the instrument with which names as illustrious as Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo Yo Ma are synonymous. Presented by the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in partnership with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the festival features 26 international artists, and includes names such as Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky, Truls Mørk, Sol Gabetta, Raphael Wallfisch and Artistic Director Ralph Kirshbaum.
Gregor Piatigorsky was born in the Ukrainian city of Ekaterinoslav in 1903 – a time at which the cello wasn’t particularly highly regarded as a solo instrument. Nevertheless, by the age of nine, he had been accepted as a student by the Moscow Conservatory, and by the time he was fifteen, he had become both the principal cellist of the Bolshoi Opera Orchestra and a member of the Beethoven String Quartet (later renamed the Lenin String Quartet).
In 1921 he defected to Poland, where he briefly served as principal cellist of the Warsaw Symphony, subsequently making his way to Leipzig, where an audition with conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler led to his appointment as principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic.
Having transcribed, arranged, composed and commissioned numerous works for the cello, Piatigorsky developed and broadened the technique of cello playing, increasing the size of its repertoire in the process. He traveled the world, performing as a soloist, and also, in time, toured with artists of the calibre of Nathan Milstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubenstein.
Piatigorsky arrived in the United States during the early part of World War II, initially settling in Elizabethtown, New York, with his wife and daughter, before moving to Philadelphia when he was appointed to the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music. In 1949, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where he taught at UCLA, subsequently joining Heifetz on the faculty of the University of Southern California in 1962.
The Piatigorsky Festival opens with a series of three LA Phil subscription series concerts conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with soloists Ralph Kirshbaum, Truls Mørk and Sol Gabetta.
On May 15, the Gala Opening Concert at USC features an improvisation by cellist/composer/improvisor Giovanni Sollima, cello duos performed by Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt and Jens Peter Maintz, and a work featuring Argentinian music and dance by Antonio Lysy. That evening, Yo-Yo Ma and British pianist Kathryn Stott are in recital at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Also at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Colburn Celebrity Concert includes a performance of the Schubert Quintet by the Emerson String Quartet with Ralph Kirshbaum, and over 100 cellists performing the world premiere of a new work by Anna Clyne.
This year the Festival presents a new chamber music series, and there’s a series of master classes in which a number of recognized and accomplished cellists will work, in a public forum, with more than 40 selected young cellists from around the world.
The grand finale features a performance of the complete works for cello and piano by Beethoven – five sonatas and three sets of variations – each performed by a different renowned cellist.
The Piatigorsky International Cello Festival takes place in Los Angeles from May 13-22. For more information, and a calendar of events, visit piatigorskyfestival.usc.edu.