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Piatigorsky International Cello Festival

by Jonathan Leaf
Contributor
Friday Mar 16, 2012
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Master cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)
Master cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976)  

Don’t let visiting New Yorkers question Los Angeles’ claims to culture.

It isn’t just that this city creates extraordinary TV serials like "Mad Men" and "The Wire" shows possessed of a subtlety and storytelling power harkening back to the great novels of the nineteenth century realists.

It’s also that Los Angeles offers events like the Piatigorksy International Cello Festival. Sponsored by USC and taking place through Sunday, the Festival does not include Yo-Yo Ma. But it does feature most of the world’s other best-known cellists, including Lynn Harrell, Alisa Weilerstein and Ralph Kirshbaum.

Set variously at the recital halls of USC and at the Colburn School and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown L.A., the Festival celebrates the one-time USC faculty member and legendary cello virtuoso Gregor Piatigorsky with performances of beloved works for the instrument and talks on the history of the cello and its repertory.

I attended two events this week. Both were memorable.

On Sunday at the Colburn School, six top cellists performed Bach’s six "Unaccompanied Suites for Cello." Forgotten until the first part of the twentieth century, the "Unaccompanied Suites" were popularized by Pablo Casals, whose interpretations of the pieces were characteristically theatrical and impassioned.

In recent years, the Casals style has come under attack. But was Casals right that these pieces were not cool, intellectual essays but rather hot-blooded expressions of a composer who, as Casals noted, fathered twenty children?

Lovers of Bach got a chance to consider the question as six very different playing styles were presented in a demanding but immensely powerful concert which, including intermission, ran close to three hours. The soloists chosen came from six countries. They were, respectively: Ronald Leonard (U.S.), Thomas Demenga (Switzerland), Miklos Perenyi (Hungary), Frans Helmerson (Sweden), Jian Wang (China) and Jean-Guihen Queryas (France).

My favorites among the performers were Leonard and Perenyi. The first gave an account of the" Suite No. 1" which captured the dance rhythms of the piece, as well as Bach’s emotional range -- from sly humor to dirge and devotional passion. Perenyi brought out a beautiful organ-like tone that must have inevitably reminded listeners of Leopold Stokowski’s grand orchestral transcriptions of the composer.

A particular audience favorite was Wang. Eschewing much interpolated ornamentation, Wang provided an astonishingly big, burnished sound and a straight-up, intense reading of the "Suite No. 3."

Less satisfying to this listener was Demenga’s take on the "Suite No. 4." Demenga is a technical wizard capable of very fleet playing and he added imaginative ornamental grace notes to the suite. Lacking, however, was a sense of the rhythm and moods suggested by the markings -- as for a Courante and a Gigue -- in the score. Missing, too, was a sense of drama and much engagement with the audience.

Perhaps the most contrasting take on Bach, though, was provided by the Swede, Helmerson, who yielded up a bright, sunny sound that seemed more appropriate for a performance of Ravel than for the author of the "Saint Matthew Passion."

Yet the experience of hearing all the pieces in one evening, if demanding and somewhat exhausting, was also rare and profound. Leaving the concert hall, I overheard two different audience members say that they would never forget the night.

Less overwhelming if hardly inconsequential, was a recital given at USC on Tuesday night. This again featured Helmerson, though here he was accompanied by pianist Bernadene Blaha and preceded by cellist Gary Hoffman and Rina Dokshitsky.

Hoffman and Dokshitsky opened with Leonard Bernstein’s "Meditations." This is an unfortunate example of the composer’s later modernist style, an instance of what his sometime collaborator Stephen Sondheim said was the fatal affliction of Bernstein’s evening years: "importantitis".

Contrasting strongly with the tuneless Bernstein sonata were two other works: Ernest Bloch’s "From Jewish Life" and the late nineteenth century French composer Leon Boellmann’s rarely played "Cello Sonata." Both were played with precision and a melting tone.

Nonetheless, when Helmerson appeared to play Faure’s "Elegy" and Prokofiev’s "Cello Sonata," the evening gained in energy. Here performing in his more comfortable repertory, Helmerson impressed.

The Festival closes on Sunday with a concert of eight pieces in which a series of cello giants will play Faure, Rachmaninoff and Bach. But why must the Festival end?

Why, oh, why is life so unfair?

Several performances and master classes are on tap this weekend, including two symphonic concerts at Walt Disney Hall. For information and tickets, please visit http://piatigorskyfestival.com/calendar/.

Jonathan Leaf is a playwright and journalist living in New York.

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