Piatigorsky Cello Festival draws world-class conductor and cellist

By Truman C. Wang
Monday, May 16, 2016

Photo: Hunziker

Photo: Hunziker


Rossini: Overture to William Tell
Martinů: Cello Concerto No. 1
Berlioz: Symnphonie fantastique: Episodes of an Artist

Bassheads in L.A. rejoice!  For the week-long Piatigorsky International Cello Festival (5/13-5/22), the L.A. Phil (in conjunction with USC where Gregor Piatigorsky once taught) put together a diverse group of works, showcasing international cellists and the Phil’s own excellent cello and bass players.  The Sunday afternoon concert that I attended featured three works by Rossini, Martinů and Berlioz, all containing potent dozes of the bass clef in one form or another. 

Rossini’s William Tell Overture is today best known for its final section of galloping, brassy fanfare that's forever linked to the 1950’s “Lone Ranger” TV Show.  Most of the public remain blissfully unaware of the other three sections of the overture, which Berlioz likened to mini-movements of a symphony – the opening serene passage for five cellos, followed by a violent storm, then an idyllic calm, and finally the famous barnstorming of the “Lone Ranger”.  Conductor Leonard Slatkin, a self-professed “non-opera fan”, gave a powerfully symphonic reading of this grandest of all Rossini overtures, with memorable contributions from the flute, English horn and of course the cellos. 

Berlioz’s wildly psychedelic Symphonie fantastique can be described in this context as a “Guillaume Tell” overture on a grander scale, with their different sections roughly coinciding with each other in feeling if not in execution.  Mr. Slatkin directed a solidly exciting performance that nonetheless remained earthbound and rarely took off into the fantastical or whimsy realms – one thing that made the Davis and Dutoit recordings so memorable.  As with any performance of the Symphonie, the best part were seeing the solo turns by a diverse array of instruments, thanks to Berlioz’s masterful skills of orchestration.  I say ‘seeing’ because you miss half the fun listening to an audio recording of this work.  Carolyn Hove’s English horn (in the Shepherd’s call) , Denis Bouriakov’s flute (in the first movement’s idée fixe theme) and Ariana Ghez’s oboe were just some of the instrumental highlights.  The cellos and basses were the star in the splendidly-executed ‘March to the Scaffold’.  

The guest cellist for this concert was the young Argentinian firebrand Sol Gabetta, who seems to have made a name for herself playing Bohuslav Martinů’s Cello Concerto No. 1 all over the world.  She impressed with her marvelously joyful reading of great brilliance and lyricism.  Her enthusiastic music-making and animated style were completely infectious and made sitting through this unfamiliar work seem like a breeze.  Maestro Slatkin proved an equally fine partner, diving headlong into the athleticism of the score and savoring the softer moments (like the haunting clarinet opening theme in the Andante, superbly played by Burt Hara) -- all in perfect dialogs with the soloist.  Far from being the ‘poor man’s Dvorak’, Martinů deserves more recognition and finds two very sympathetic proponents in Leonard Slatkin and Sol Gabetta.  Here is hoping that someone would mount Martinů’s one-act opera Ariane as part of a double bill (with Bartok’s Bluebeard perhaps).  

Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.