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Music review: Piatigorsky Cello Festival opening concert at USC

March 11, 2012 |  3:28 pm

Sayaka Selina and Thomas Demenga
The Piatigorsky International Cello Festival began big Friday night at USC’s Bovard Auditorium. Seven cello soloists played five concertos (two were double concertos) in an exhausting and often spectacular showcase concert. And it was just the start of what promises to be an inimitable 10-day nonstop cello orgy that will end March 18 at Walt Disney Concert Hall with a piece by Christopher Rouse for 100 cellists.

But, hey, USC has the reputation for knowing how to party, and I overheard one student cellist in the audience say she was prepared to become cello-ed out.

Cellists have come from all continents except Antarctica, Ralph Kirshbaum, the festival’s artistic director, noted in his introductory remarks at Bovard. That includes 22 soloists and 45 young cellists who will participate in public master classes. It also means a bonanza for the airlines, since cellists must buy an extra seat for their fragile instruments.

The festival -- which will include a great many recitals, workshops, three concerto performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and, no doubt, endless cello schmoozing -- is meant as a tribute to Gregor Piatigorsky, one of the greatest and most beloved cellists of the 20th century. He taught at USC from 1949 until his death in 1976, and appeared in regular chamber music series with violinist Jascha Heifetz at Bovard. Student tickets, in the front row, were a dollar, and there was no better introduction for a teenager to music’s power than to hear, close up, the incredibly physical warmth of Piatigorsky's cello sound wrapping itself around Heifetz’s soaring intensity.

The program of the opening concert featured some pretty great cello playing. It didn’t unfortunately embody the Piatigorsky who premiered a number of important and some unjustly neglected concertos, but it did remind us of his strong role as a pedagogue -- several of the international soloists in the festival were his students.

A chamber orchestra was organized with principal players from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra along with USC and Colburn School students, and conducted with striking incisiveness and sensitivity to a wide range of soloists by Hugh Wolff.

The first work, Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor, was an obscurity and a minor find. The soloists, Antonio Lysy and Peter Stumpf –- representing, respectively, the UCLA and USC cello faculties -- played with engaging unanimity, especially in a sweet, short slow movement.

The most attention-getting soloist was Narek Hakhnazaryan in Saint-Saëns' First Cello Concerto, the evening’s one work that was closely associated with Piatigorsky. This young Armenian cellist won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Russia last summer, but his victory was sadly overshadowed by a scandal. Mark Gorenstein, music director of the State Academic Symphony Orchestra, which accompanied Hakhnazaryan in the competition, made anti-Armenian slurs against the cellist that led to the conductor being ousted from the competition and dismissal from his orchestra.

Hakhnazaryan, who got a near rock star ovation from an audience of screaming cellists in Bovard, is, in fact, a controversial player. His command of the instrument is extraordinary, and he is clearly going places. He is an assured, flamboyant, old-school Romantic. His vibrato is hyper-expressive, but it didn't appear to make his exacting audience squirm.

Both of Haydn’s cello concertos were on the program, and they got very different types of treatments. Jian Wang was the stern, straight-forward, stylistically unimaginative soloist in the D-Major Concerto.

In contrast, Jean-Guihen Queyras’ fresh, alert and original performance of the earlier C Major concerto was, I thought, the highlight of the evening. The French cellist’s tone is light and fragrant. He plays with not only a sense of pert 18th century style but also a modernity as if this were music newly composed. Perhaps that is because Queyras also pays attention to new music; it was a shame that he was not asked to play one of the interesting contemporary concertos he has premiered elsewhere.

The evening’s new music came, instead, from cellist and composer Thomas Demenga, whose “Relations” received its American premiere Friday. The double concerto was written for himself and his brother Patrick, who has pneumonia and was replaced by Sayaka Selina (a cello student of the composer). A stylistically Postmodern concerto, which also features prominent roles for percussion and prepared piano, it cleverly dabbles in this and that.

The first movement contains intriguing exotica allusions to Indonesian gamelan, and the incorporation of sung syllables (taken from the soloists’ names) by the percussionist and soloists was amusing. A dreamy second movement, though, sounded thin and a jazzy final movement, slighter still.

But the cello parts dazzled, especially the way two cellists often played as one. That is something clearly in the blood of cello brothers, and Selina here proved an honorary Demenga, an impressive perfect fit.

Now for a week-long parade of cello personalities.

RELATED:

The curvy beauty of the cello

Piatigorsky: Her triumph was an identity of her own

Music review: Jeffrey Kahane conducts the L.A. Chamber Orchestra

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Cellists Sayaka Selina and Thomas Demenga at USC's Bovard Auditorium Friday night. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times.

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