A little more than a week ago I had the opportunity to participate in the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival. No, not as a cellist, but as a member of the audience. This festival founded by Ralph Kirshbaum honors cellist Gregor Piatgorsky (1903 – 1976) with concerts, recitals, and master classes all lead by the great modern cellist (Zuill Bailey, Yo-Yo Ma, and Li-Wei Qin just to name a few). The events are sponsored by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the University of Southern California. Nearly a hundred events throughout its two-week run I couldn’t attend all of them, so I picked one day.
I went on a Sunday when two concerts were scheduled. At mid-morning, I pointed my car southwest and headed the hundred miles to Los Angeles and Walt Disney Concert Hall.
I arrived ninety minutes before the performance and headed straight for the lecture hall. The conductor Leonard Slatkin spent some time talking about his life and the music we would be hearing. He shared how as a child his world was full of music. He was tucked into bed with lullabies sung by Uncle Frank (as in Frank Sinatra). He also took a few minutes to teach the two hundred or so of us, how to conduct an orchestra. He said it was the easiest job in music. When he was done, it was time to find our seats.
I had a climb to find my seats. I was high in the upper balcony giving me an expansive view the auditorium and the stage. To my delight, I had friends sitting nearby. The lights dimmed, and the music began.
The first piece was the Overture to William Tell by Gioacchino Rossini (1792 – 1868). I had learned from Mr. Slatkin that Rossini was a cellist. Most of you will be familiar with this piece. One passage became the theme The Lone Ranger and another was used in the short film Bambi Meets Godzilla. What many may not remember, including me, the opening bars are a cello solo, played by the principle cellist, in the case the sublime Robert DeMaine. He was then joined by three more cellos before the full orchestra joins in. Beautiful and pastoral, it is always fun to hear it again.
The second piece on the program was Cello Concerto No.1 by Bohuslav Martinů (1890 – 1959). The soloist was the beautiful Sol Gabetta, dressed in a long flowing red gown. I sat with anticipation to hear a cellist I was unfamiliar with playing a piece by a composer I was that was also new to me. The program informed that this would be the first time the LA Phil had performed the piece. It was new to all of us. The themes ranged from robust and rhythmic to austere and noble.
Gabetta played one encore. Unfortunately, up in the balcony, we couldn’t hear what was announced from the stage. But it was unique. Played mostly with harmonics it was high pitched and hauntingly beautiful.
After a short intermission, we returned to hear Symphonie Fantastique: Episode in the Life of an Artist by Hector Berlioz (1803 – 1869). This piece uses music to tell the story of love found, love unrequited, and love lost. Some of the themes were very tender and bittersweet and others like the “Dream of a Witch’s Sabbath” were wild and yet sad.
When the concert ended, I had a picnic on the front steps. I had hoped to eat in the lovely public garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall but is was closed between performances.
When the auditorium reopened, I headed to my seat. This time a bit lower in the terrace section, these seats put you just above eye-level with the stage.
The was a recital, only two performers would grace the stage. On cello, Yo-Yo Ma, and on piano, Kathryn Stott. In evening attire, they took the stage silently, bowed, and began to play.
The first pieces played as a single suite, were from their album Songs from the Arc of Life. The suite is a collection of their favorite pieces from the album, which reflects points along a person’s life. It began with the Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod), followed by Was it a dream? Op. 37, No. 4 (Sibelius), Tango Jalousie (Gade), Beau Soir (Debussy), and ending with Ave Maria (Schubert). They moved seamlessly between each piece. I had tears in my eyes.
The next piece was Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40 by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906 – 1975). This is one of my favorites from the cello repertoire. With three fast movements and a slow one squeezed between the second and the forth, it is a roller-coaster ride. The end of the second movement was climatic the audience burst into applause (It generally frowned upon to clap between movements.) The slow or Largo movement was graceful. The final movement again fast and forceful.
During the brief intermission, my seat neighbors asked me if I had seen the look the lady in front of me had shot my why when I unwrapped a throat lozenge. Yes, I had. She had been given all around her sharp looks and shushing for the smallest of noises. I can only imagine her response if I had not chosen to sooth my tickle and coughed.
When the program continued, Yo-Yo Ma returned to the stage in a gray t-shirt. He made a joke about it being warm on stage. He modeled it, turning so we could see the cello festival logo and the list of performers.
The next piece was Il bell’Antonio (Tema III) by Giovanni Sollima (b. 1962). This is another selection from Songs from the Arc of Life. This was a fun contemporary arrangement made all the more special in that the composer was sitting in the audience. From my seat, I could watch him listening to his music being played.
The final official selection for the evening was Sonata in A Major by César Franck (1822 – 1890). This was originally written for violin, but transcriptions for cello and flute were also published during Franck’s life. I enjoyed listening to this arrangement. I thought it was appropriate that the last piece I would hear this session was also played in the first concert I attended, during Joshua Bell’s concert back in October. The two not only had different instruments (Bell plays the violin), they also approached it differently. Bell attacked the notes and danced his way through it. Ma caressed the notes and gently wove his way through it.
The performance didn’t end the. Ma and Stott did three encores. All from the Songs from the Arc of Life Lullaby: (Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4), Salut d’Amour, Op 12, and The Swan (from Carnival of the Animals). Ma raised his arms and flapped like a bird to announce The Swan, sending chuckles through the audience and another round of dirty looks from the lady in front of me.
Oh, did I mention the page turner? This young woman had the task of turning the music pages for Stott. This is a difficult job. The page turner rarely gets more than a few minutes before the performance to discuss how the pianist wants the page turning done. And every one of them has their unique preferences. During the show, her eyes never left the music. She stayed focus. Nothing distracted her from her task – no the noise coming from the audience, not the beauty of the music. I know I couldn’t do it. I would have gotten lost in the sheet music or starting listening to them play. Kudos to her on a job well done.
It was an enjoyable day. The only part that wasn’t fun was the ninety-minute drive back to the High Desert. Would I do it again? Do ducks fly south in the winter? You bet I would. I’m already contemplating how I could attend more of the festival’s events next year.
Until next time, remember the door is always open and the kettle always on.