The giant ‘cellofest’ gathering fans in Los Angeles

Truls Mørk at PICF © Maria Roberts | IAM
Truls Mørk at PICF © Maria Roberts / IAM

Chiliads of cello fans arrived in Los Angeles earlier this week for the launch of the 2nd Piatigorsky International Cello Festival (13 – 22 May), named after the celebrated Ukrainian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who spent much of his adult life in LA and taught at University of Southern California until his death in 1976. IAM flew out to the sunshine state to find out more.

Something of a pedagogical delight, PICF takes place every four years and handpicks promising music students from across the world for master classes with some of the industry’s leading cellists performing today.

The 2016 roster includes Raphael Wallfisch and Colin Carr (England); Jens Peter Maintz (Germany); Truls Mørk (Norway, pictured above); Ronald Leonard and Laurence Lesser (America); Thomas Demenga (Switzerland); as well as French-Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras; artistic director Ralph Kirshbaum; Swedish cellist and pedagogue, Frans Helmerson; and Lithuanian cellist David Geringas.

Speaking to IAM exclusively in his hotel suite in LA, artistic director Ralph Kirshbaum said: ‘It’s really basically for the younger generation, I’m afraid that sometimes they lack the curiosity to look beyond what’s in front of them and to explore the great history that precedes us all, not only as cellists, but as musicians. I think it’s very important that the legacy is kept alive. Through a festival, one can achieve that.’

PICF had its genesis at Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) in Manchester, where in 1988 Kirshbaum founded the RNCM Manchester International Cello Festival, for which he was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Music Award for Concert Series and Festivals in 2007 after its last edition.

Now he has moved the gathering across the Atlantic after taking up the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello in 2008 at USC’s Thornton School of Music in Los Angeles, later becoming chair of strings at the institution. Transferring his festival spirit to the US, the first Piatigorsky International Cello Festival (PICF) took place in LA in 2012 – the 2016 edition has far exceeded ticket sales already.

Ralph Kirshbaum backstage with Yo-Yo Ma © Shirley Kirshbaum
Ralph Kirshbaum backstage with Yo-Yo Ma at WDCH © Shirley Kirshbaum

The PICF programme reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the cello world: The Colburn Celebrity Recitals at Walt Disney Concert Hall have seen performances by Yo-Yo Ma (pictured left) and Kathryn Stott with LA Philharmonic, whilst the evening recitals have paired masters and maestros such as cellist Sol Gabetta (below) and pianist Kevin Fitz-Gerald.

Students and the public benefit from a range of workshops and conversation series including improvisation classes with Italian composer and cellist Giovanni Sollima; a panel discussion by four of Piatigorsky’s former students Laurence Lesser, Mischa Maisky, Jeffrey Solow, and Raphael Wallfisch; and a forum on fine instruments.


Sol Gabetta © Daniel Anderson
Sol Gabetta PICF recital at WDCH © Daniel Anderson

On Tuesday 17 May, Kirshbaum led a ‘Cellofest’ with the Emerson Quartet, cello quintet SAKURA and a massive ensemble of 100+ virtuosic cellists made of fellows, soloists and LA Phil cellists, through a world premiere of Anna Clyne’s Threads and Traces, as well as movements from Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, W246. 

‘The function of a festival is that you can introduce great artists to a broader public,’ added Kirshbaum. ‘I think for the fellows to see the way we the older generation come together in this open and affectionate spirit is a wonderful example for them. In the cello world there is less competitiveness, though there are some egos involved, of course.’

What does 70-year-old Kirshaum learn from this great gathering of musicians? ‘I get from it what anybody else gets from it: I find it very stimulating motivating and inspiring to be surrounded by all these cellists and the fellows.You never stop learning.’ 

Read Ralph Kirshbaum’s diary in the June edition of IAM, subscribe here