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109 cellos and one obsession in Walt Disney Concert Hall

109 cellos and one obsession in Walt Disney Concert Hall
Cellist Mischa Maisky performs Beethoven Sonata Opus 102, No. 1, at USC's Bovard Auditorium on Sunday in the closing concert of the International Piatigorsky Festival. (Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)

Before a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall last week, I stopped at the Colburn School across the street for a quick salad. Every outdoor table of the café was crowded with a dozen or more animated teenagers dressed in black for a performance. Tall cello cases took up the remaining space. The young cellists barely paid attention to their sandwiches and chips or showed the slightest evidence of stage fright.

They seemed, instead, consumed by the cello the way other compulsive teens might be by comics or rap or sports or Snapchat. The 10-day Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, which ended with two sumptuous cello marathons over the weekend, was for them.

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The official tally of cellos on the Disney stage was 109, gathered for the premiere of Anna Clyne's "Threads & Traces," a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission for the occasion. The kids, whether tall or short, whatever their gender, nationality or race, seemed pretty much alike. They showed the intent seriousness of, say, a tyro equestrian subsumed in the all-encompassing effort of mastery.

The young musicians were joined in the Mass Cello Ensemble by several noted soloists, elders who, on the other hand, revealed vivid personalities. Even regimented in this cello mob, each was a mentor having a ball.

The festival was founded at USC by Ralph Kirshbaum in honor of Gregor Piatigorsky, one of the 20th century's most celebrated cellists and a larger-than-life personality. Like the inaugural festival four years ago, this second version included a boot-camp-like concentration of master classes, concerts and all-around cello camaraderie.

Such camaraderie among musicians is hardly uncommon. Next week, the International Trumpet Guild is holding a five-day conference at the Hyatt Regency Orange County, which will include a lecture concert on Thai composers and nearly 50 trumpets tackling the Triumphal March from "Aida." The trumpeter's last day, June 4, is the first of the monthlong SongFest training program for singers at the Colburn School.

I was not able this year to make the daytime public master classes or many of the recitals, where the transformation from cello geek to artist begins. And though the trumpeters in Garden Grove and the vocalists at Colburn will surely seem like different beasts in some ways, with their individual musical neuroses, my guess is that the master classes may not be very different.

The massed cello evening was, of course, all about the cello, but it was also about more than the cello. The massed cello evening was, of course, all about the cello — and even that was about more than the cello. The program began with Kirshbaum joining the Emerson String Quartet for Schubert's Quintet in C, one of the great glories of chamber music. But neither he nor the Emerson's cellist, Paul Watkins, dominated in this stately and gracious performance the way Mstislav Rostropovich and the Emerson's former cellist, David Finckel, did in the quartet's effusive 1992 recording of the score.

Brett Dean's "Twelve Angry Men" for a dozen cellists (three here were women) offered a nicely contentious contrast in a performance lead by Sakura, a feisty ensemble of young cellists who studied with Kirshbaum. Clyne's massed cello score is not contentious. She quietly threads melodic lines, as though fearing a violent herd mentality. Matthew Aucoin, who conducted, then let the 109 rip in Villa-Lobos' "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1," which was basically what everyone had been waiting for.

The concluding marathon concerts Saturday and Sunday in USC's Bovard Auditorium were designed to best show several of the festival's soloists' individuality. However much the cello was once more the center of things, what was most interesting was how pliable the instrument proved.

The Saturday night program was part of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Baroque Conversations series, with the cello soloists also conducting baroque concertos. Jean-Guihen Queyras began the evening with an obscurity, Concerto in D Major by Giovanni Platti, which at its best sounded like a Michael Nyman film score and at its most bland like a thousand other Baroque concertos.

Queyras' vivid chamber music approach, which was later spectacular in a C.P.E. Bach, stood in contrast to Thomas Demenga's more inflowing, understated manner in a Boccherini concerto. But the great comparison was between Colin Carr's cautious Vivaldi and Giovanni Sollima's flamboyance in Leonardo Leo's Concert No. 3 in D Minor.

It was hard to separate the Sicilian cellist, who is also a fanciful composer and improviser, and the obscure Neapolitan composer. Who could tell how much of this little-known score was Leo and how much Sollima? He led the LACO strings on an emotional roller coaster, asking for every gesture to be a matter of emotional life and death, and then he showed them how on his instrument. Whatever it was, it was fabulous.

The festival's closing gala turned into a three-hour-plus traversal of Beethoven's music for cello and piano, the five sonatas and three sets of variations. With eight cellists, there were eight different approaches.

The late Opus 102 sonatas were handled with sophisticated elegance by Demenga (with pianist Bernadene Blaha) in the first and sophisticated flair by Queyras (with pianist Jeffrey Kahane). Carr (also with Blaha) was far more dramatic in the Opus 69 sonata than he had been in Vivaldi the night before. In the early Opus 5, No. 1, Ronald Leonard (with pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald) was restrained. In Opus 5, No.2, Mischa Maisky was not.

A flashy figure who is often partnered  with Martha Argerich, Maisky is a flamboyant free spirit. Here his pianist was Lily Maisky, a penetrating and percussive pianist who came across as a daughter doing everything she could to keep her father from being embarrassing. She did, and brilliantly, in a riveting performance with a huge amount of perfectly contained excitement.

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The variations are of lesser interest, but Laurence Lesser, Andrew Shulman and Matt Haimovitz covered the spectrum from measured to unfettered.

There are more role models than these, especially with a young generation of fearlessly passionate experimenters, such as Séverine Ballon, whose solo Monday Evening Concerts recital in March was a fearless display of cello physicality.  But perhaps the festival's most important lesson to the young obsessives, and one true to Piatigorsky's legacy, is that as much as the cello may be the center of a great cellist's life, for musicians to express life, they have to live.

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