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Piatigorsky, the cello and Los Angeles

We hear his name mentioned in reverence all the time, but for those outside the cello world, it’s unclear just why Gregor Piatigorsky was such an important figure.

Here’s why.

The cello wasn’t a prominent solo instrument before the 19th century. There was repertoire written for it before that – notably, the six famous Bach suites.

But cellists played in a different manner then; the cello itself was a very different instrument. It had a very small sound. The end-pin used to support the modern cello wasn’t introduced until the mid-19th century. Before then, the cello was held between the knees. The need to balance and support it limited the power that a cellist could bring to bear on the strings. As the instrument evolved through the mid-1800s, composers began to realize what it was capable of.

“When Dvorak wrote his cello concerto in 1896, that opened so many possibilities,” said Ralph Kirshbaum, holder of the Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello at USC, who played that very work with the Los Angeles Philharmonic during the inaugural Piatigorsky International Cello Festival.

“Brahms famously said: ‘If I’d known that a cello concerto could be written such as that, I would have written one myself,’” Kirshbaum said.

Presumably it was too late for Brahms. But not for many others.

“The history of the cello is like an explosion through the 20th century, led by figures such as Pablo Casals and then Emanuel Feuermann and Piatigorsky,” Kirshbaum explained. “Composers began to write for the cello because they realized what it can do. It can play in the same register as the violin practically, so you can play very high. But we also have the great depth and warmth of sound, and what a color palette to work with for a composer!”

Many of the 20th century’s great composers wrote cello concertos for Piatigorsky, including Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, William Walton, Vernon Duke and Igor Stravinsky.

As for his presence in Los Angeles – Piatigorsky spent the last third of his life here – it played an important role in the city’s cultural coming-of-age.

Piatigorsky collaborated energetically with other towering musical émigrés, such as Stravinsky and USC colleagues Jascha Heifetz and William Primrose, helping to transform the Southland from a classical music hinterland to the international hotspot it is today.

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