There’s Always Room For (More And More) Cellos

At midpoint of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, Matthew Aucoin conducted 106 cellists in the world premiere of Anna Klyne's 'Threads and Pieces' and Heitor Villa-Lobos' 'Bachianas Brasileiras' No. 1 (Dario Griffin)
At midpoint of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, Matthew Aucoin conducted 106 cellists in Anna Clyne’s new ‘Threads and Pieces’ and Heitor Villa-Lobos’ ‘Bachianas Brasileiras’ No. 1 (Dario Griffin)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Organizers of the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival promised that 100 cellists would appear in Walt Disney Concert Hall May 17, but they misspoke. Instead, 106 cellists crammed onto the Disney stage, a mighty finale for a long evening of passionately played music from three centuries at the festival’s midpoint. Sure, it was a stunt, but the marvelous mass music making elevated it beyond that.

Backtracking a bit, the Piatigorsky Festival is the brainchild of the distinguished cellist Ralph Kirshbaum, who conceived it as a tribute to Gregor Piatigorsky – a natural idea since Kirshbaum has held the Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello at the University of Southern California since 2008. This was the second edition of the festival (the first took place in 2012), one that Kirshbaum designed as a “celebration” of the cello, with concerts, master classes, exhibitions, panel discussions – everything except a competition, an idea that Kirshbaum strenuously resists.

Ralph Kirshbaum and Yo-Yo Ma. (Shirley Kirshbaum)
Ralph Kirshbaum and Yo-Yo Ma. (Shirley Kirshbaum)

The Los Angeles Philharmonic got involved over the previous weekend by presenting three performances at Disney Hall in which three cellists (Kirshbaum, Truls Mørk, and Sol Gabetta) performed three different works on consecutive days with Leonard Slatkin and the orchestra. In 2012, concerto dates with the Phil culminated the festival; in 2016, they were the kickoff events.

The massed-cellos concert proved to be an unusual one in every respect, even when burrowing into standard repertoire. The great, expansive Schubert String Quintet in C usually is programmed as a stand-alone piece after intermission, but on this occasion, it came first.

The Emerson String Quartet, with three of its four members playing standing up as usual, was joined by Kirshbaum in the Schubert; together they produced a clear, urgent, resonant ensemble sound on the Disney stage. It was a stirring performance lasting more than 53 minutes, full of strong rustic rhythm and affectionately caressed lyrical subjects, yet also a strange one in a few respects. With everyone playing out fervently, the balances were so even in the first movement that inner lines kept interfering with the main ones, and intonation wasn’t always spot on. But the heat and commitment of the moment ultimately overcame any blemishes, and Schubert was the victor.

Cellos filled Disney stage. (Dario Griffin)
Cellos filled Walt Disney Concert Hall stage. (Dario Griffin)

After the break, the stage was occupied by the young cello quintet that calls itself Sakura – named in honor of their teacher (“sakura” is Japanese for “cherry tree”; so is “kirschbaum” in German!) – along with seven guest cellists. They delivered a feisty performance of Brett Dean’s Twelve Angry Men, a tone poem that literally tracks the plot of the famous film of that name. It starts with a burst of dissonant quarreling among the 12 cellists, then a lone cellist smoothly begins to apply quiet reason to the debate. Gradually, all the “jurors” fall into line in uneasy harmony, with the exception of a lone holdout who maintains a grumpy dissenting voice to the end. If you didn’t know the premise, the piece wouldn’t make sense as there isn’t much musical substance that you can take home, but with the plot in mind, the work holds the attention quite well.

Then out they came, over a hundred cellists one after another, divided into eight groups of 12 or 14, affixed with the title Mass Cello Ensemble 2016. Seated up front in a semi-circle and within the mass of cellists were cello stars like Mischa Maisky, Truls Mørk, Sol Gabetta, Thomas Demenga, Matt Haimovitz, Raphael Wallfisch, the LA Phil’s former principal Ronald Leonard (seated in his old slot to the right of the podium), and Kirshbaum himself. On the podium was a newsmaking newcomer, the young (26) composer/conductor Matthew Aucoinwho is about to assume a prominent role in the Los Angeles music scene, starting a three-year term as Artist-in-Residence at LA Opera in fall 2016.

Cellist Truls Mørk performed with LA Phil under Leonard Slatkin early in the festival. (Dario Griffin)
Cellist Truls Mørk performed with LA Phil under Leonard Slatkin. (Dario Griffin)

The cello is the only instrument in the symphony orchestra that is capable of credibly approximating a full orchestral sound if you pack them on a stage, whether 20, 50, or 106.  There is just enough of a top end on the cello’s range to compensate for the missing violins, whereas the violin and viola lack a rich bass, the double bass strains at the top – and as for an orchestra of, say, 106 flutes or 106 trumpets or whatever, forget it.

The sound of this aggregation of cellos came at first in murmuring pianissimo chaos in Anna Clyne’s Threads and Traces, a world premiere commission by the LA Phil for the festival. Gradually, a minor-key theme emerges from the chaos, then comes a somber, beautiful, passacaglia-like passage before the music slips back into quiet chaos. The effect is not unlike that of Górecki’s mournful Symphony No. 3, although Clyne’s inspiration is a more positive one of interconnections between everyone and everything in this world. The piece works, and at a bit under 12 minutes, it’s not too long for its material.

Raphael Wallfisch was among the cellists giving master classes. (Daniel Anderson)
Raphael Wallfisch was among cellists giving master classes. (Daniel Anderson)

With Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, written for “an orchestra of cellos” and easily blown up for a massive ensemble, the full power of this band was unleashed – a huge, remarkably unified, if bottom-heavy sound with a lot of audible surface noise from bows digging into the strings. The combination of wise old veterans, rising stars, and young would-be virtuosos produced an explosion of vigor, warmth, and sheer mass musicality, outlasting the novelty of seeing so many cellos in one place.

Sporting a trim beard, dressed in hipster black, Aucoin proved to be a rather busy conductor, leading with brisk, sharp, firm motions as he leaned back, tugging and pulling on the rhetoric of the songful slow movement, getting into the swing of the samba-based rhythms of the outer movements. He’s a graceful natural on the podium, and Los Angeles may be in for some interesting times (his first big project with LA Opera is conducting Philip Glass’s Akhnaten in November).

In the meantime, the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival runs through May 22, closing with a gala concert at USC that takes in the complete Beethoven works for cello and piano (five sonatas and three sets of variations) as performed by various cellists and pianists. This festival clearly thinks big to the end. For tickets, click here.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.