Piatigorsky Cello Festival blends learning with performance
Niall Ferguson’s YouTube tastes are admittedly a little bit different from his peers at Santa Monica High School.
“I search cellists on the Internet and whatever pieces I’m interested in hearing, and I’ve created a library of my favorite cellists,” says Ferguson, a senior.
The 17-year-old recently added himself to the cellists on YouTube as part of an audition for a spot in the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, a 10-day extravaganza that began Friday night. Ferguson will be one of 110 cellist performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall in the finale of the festival.
“This is the first time I’ve ever put anything of myself playing solo out there for the world to see,” says Ferguson, dressed in a pressed black button-down shirt and matching trousers before a chamber music performance at the Colburn School. “You upload those two pieces, and they watch it, and you hope you get it.”
About 30 students applied via YouTube, and 22 made the cut, including Ferguson. Using the medium also pulled in young cellists from across the country.
“It was intended to be for cellists under college age in the immediate L.A. area, but we started getting applications from Florida, New York and across California,” says Antonio Lysy, a festival artist who helped plan the online auditions.
The festival — which includes some 45 recitals, concertos, workshops and discussions — has an international emphasis, with cellists representing all continents except Antarctica.
Young cellists are paired with professionals for public master classes, and the festival will wind up Sunday with the 110 cellists from both experience levels playing the West Coast premiere of a Christopher Rouse piece at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
“It’s pretty fantastic to be able to say I played at Disney Hall with, not only a group of other talented young cellists, but the world-renowned big dogs,” says Ferguson.
The festival — a collaboration of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Colburn School, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the USC Thornton School of Music — was three years in the making. “To my knowledge, there’s never been a festival of this dimension on the West Coast,” says artistic director Ralph Kirshbaum. “And we hope it’s the first of many.”
The festival is also a tribute Gregor Piatigorsky, one of the great cellists of the 20th century and a USC music teacher from 1949 until his death in 1976.
“We have several of his former students who are playing very significant roles in this festival,” says Kirshbaum, who holds the Piatigorsky Chair of Violoncello at USC, “so the spirit of Piatigorsky is there.”
Kirshbaum was putting the finishing touches on the 110-person (plus cello) seating chart a few weeks before Sunday’s final show.
“It’s figuring out how they can actually fit collaboratively and successfully onstage at the same time,” says Kirshbaum. “The younger cellists, in almost every instance, I have them sitting next to a much more experienced player so they’ll feel the security of someone who’s a little more advanced than they are.”
Although the sheet music was handed out weeks ago, the cellists will have only two hours to rehearse as a group before the finale.
“The music that we’re playing is not only difficult on an individual level, but putting it together with 100 other cellists is an intense feat,” says Ferguson.
Ferguson, whose musical range (and vocabulary) is well beyond his years, chose the cello on a whim after spending time with another instrument.
“After two years of the shrill voice of the clarinet, I figured I needed to hop on the other end of the spectrum for a little while to low-registered, string instruments,” he says. “The cello is the primary instrument, at least for now.
When asked how many instruments he plays, Ferguson pauses briefly. “I hate this question,” he says before counting on his fingers. “We’ll count percussion as just one,” he says, deciding on five.
Ferguson comes from a long line of musicians — his father, Scott Ferguson, produced a Grammy-nominated contemporary blues album and has scored independent films. His distant cousin Allyn Ferguson co-wrote the themes for “Charlie's Angels” and “Barney Miller.”
Niall Ferguson is applying to college as a performance major on cello. “Ultimately, I want to get into film composition and arranging,” he says. “Very much like Dad.”
Click here for Piatigorsky International Cello Festival tickets and a event schedule.
Photo: Niall Ferguson auditioned on YouTube to play in the cello festival finale. Credit: Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times.