The 100 cellos of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival


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There goes the Disney Hall stage.

Sunday night, as the grand finale of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, 100 cellists dug their endpins into the expensive stage floor of Walt Disney Concert Hall for a rare performance of Christopher Rouse’s “Rapturedux.”

The tender Alaskan yellow cedar now has a cluster of new pockmarks, and the universe has a remarkable new sound — 400 rich and rapt cello strings vibrating in a great acoustic space. This goes beyond music. Vibration is the essence of nature — everything vibrates. And in the opening F-major chord of “Rapturedux,” it was possible to believe in a palpable music of the spheres.


What was also remarkable was that this was the sound of a hundred individuals riding the same waves. The 10-day festival — sponsored by USC with the participation of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Colburn School — was jampacked with cellists, all different. And while I was able to catch only some of the opening and closing events, I did manage to hear nearly all of the 22 notable cello soloists who participated. An astounded member of the audience put it best Sunday. It was, he said, as though the cellists all spoke different languages.

Even more striking was the fact that the selection of cellists was not nearly as far-ranging as it might have been. Somehow, there was only one woman, Alisa Weilerstein, who happened to come last in the alphabetical listing (and nearly last in the proceedings, in an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sunday afternoon). Nor did the festival invite cellists who are most dramatically pushing the instrument’s envelope, as is, say, Frances-Marie Uitti. She will be at REDCAT on Friday, performing a work that requires playing two bows simultaneously, and she also developed an electronic stringless cello.

Still, the Piatigorsky Festival was, if conventional, all over the map. On one epic evening at Zipper Concert Hall, the six Bach cello suites were played by six cellists from six countries but might have been from six planets. In the events I heard, the cello was played with lots of vibrato and little vibrato. It was played with sentimentality and with classy finesse. It was played from the heart, from the fingers and from the intellect, though only once from all three at once.

That was the Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi. For his performance of the Bach Suite No. 5, he was not showy. Wearing an old-fashioned tux and old-fashioned tie (with a diamond stud), he looked like an Old World waiter. Born in 1948, he had a world-weary manner making him appear older than his years.

His playing was spiritually intense. He kept his vibrato to a minimum, yet his tone was bold, and its focus gave him penetrating presence. He once studied with Pablo Casals and, like Casals, he seemed to penetrate the essence of what he was playing. No gesture was extraneous, and yet this was not pure Bach but Bach informed by deep experience. You can witness that kind of depth for yourself on his new ECM recording of Bach’s Sixth Suite for solo cello and Benjamin Britten’s Third.

How different, then, was the flamboyant Latvian Mischa Maisky, who played two short Rachmaninoff pieces (one being the composer’s cello adaptation of the ubiquitous Vocalise) at Sunday’s recital finale with booming, vibrato-laden heart-on-sleeve expression. He’s a character — he wore a silver satin tunic. But he is also a force of nature who all but wraps a listener in his effusive tone.


He was followed by the lyrically understated British cellist Steven Isserlis, who gave a carefully understated reading of Fauré’s Second Cello Sonata and a character-filled performance of Thomas Adès’ “Lieux Retrouvés” (Recovered Places), written for Isserlis three years ago.

I’m told Isserlis, who demonstrated impatience with his over-eager audience Sunday, was a taskmaster in his master class. Students on a promising career path from around the world were invited to participate in such public classes. The one I witnessed was given by Ralph Kirshbaum, the festival’s artistic director.

Kirshbaum was gentle and encouraging. He emphasized that every phrase in a piece must create the sensation of breath. This was not a session that provoked tears but rather a sense of well-being.

That Kirshbaumian sense of well-being was a hallmark of the festival and in “Rapturedux,” which was adroitly conducted by Courtney Lewis, it was multiplied a hundredfold. It’s a short piece, lasting only seven minutes, but for those seven minutes composer Rouse is like a kid in a cello candy store, stuffing down as much cello sound as he can.

Make that a cosmic candy store. Sunday’s sundry cellos swelled fabulously, and they exhaled just as fabulously. Cello vibrations seemed to infuse all the senses, not just hearing. The hall shimmered. The cellos could be felt through the skin, tasted, smelled. The festival may have lasted 10 long days. But this was a cello festival of its own, condensed to seven incomparable minutes.



Music review: Piatigorsky Cello Festival opening concert at USC

Piatigorsky Cello Festival blends learning with performance

The curvy beauty of the cello

-- Mark Swed