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Meet Ralph Kirshbaum, Who's Bringing World's Finest Cellists Together in L.A. For the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival

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Artistic Director Ralph Kirshbaum with bust of Gregor Piatigorsky. Photo by Steve Cohn
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Ralph Kirshbaum, world renown pedagogue and performer, recently moved to Los Angeles to take over the Gregor Piatigorsky Endowed Chair in Violoncello at the USC Thornton School of Music. The USC Thornton School is partnering with the LA Phil, The Colburn School, and LACO to bring the world's finest cellists to take part in the PIatigorsky International Cello Festival, from March 9th-18th.We got to chat with Kirshbaum (who you can catch with the LA Phil on the 15th) about his role as the artistic director for the Piatigorsky International Cello Festival, and the music scene among other things in Los Angeles. The festival will take place at USC, the Colburn School, and at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, For tickets and information, click here.

What was your inspiration for this festival, and why in Los Angeles?

Well, I directed a series of international cello festivals in Great Britain when I lived there and when I came to LA to take the Piatigorsky Chair at USC, it was in a way a natural extension, to propose the idea of an international cello festival here. The thing that was different was that I wanted to make it as all encompassing as possible and partnered with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Colburn School, and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

And what was it like to come from teaching at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and teaching in London? Any major differences in the schools of playing?

Well I'm American, so it's a return home for me. I lived for over 40 years in Europe, so it was time to come home. And Piatigorsky being my boyhood idol, it was a great honor to assume this chair and I believe I am the fifth holder of this chair at the Thornton School. Different schools of playing like the Russian, the European, certainly the French have been passed down for generations, it's a wonderful thing. But if you lined up 10 of the greatest cellists, they would all sit differently, hold the cello differently, and sound differently. There has always been a broad spectrum, and sometimes we might think because recorded performance is much more accessible, and that you can hear everyone at the touch of a button, that there would be a standardization of approach, but it hasn't done so. It's the multiplicity of talent that a festival like this can show these differences.

How was the festival curated? In terms of artists and program selection.

As the artistic director for this festival, I think of the sequence of events, and of artists that would enlighten those events and be a real catalyst for the cello and the music of the cello, for this inaugural festival in Los Angeles. The actual works, are many of those that I have in my mind and I also work directly with each artist, in putting together a program that they are happy to be performing.

And more specifically on the program, Alisa Weilerstein (which Kirshbaum performed with LACO recently) is performing the Rococo and you the Dvorak...
Well with the LA Phil , I'm playing the Dvorak concerto, Mischa Maisky the Shostakovich concerto, and Weilerstein is performing the Rococo Variations and a wonderful companion piece, the Respighi Variations ...and that's what we felt made the most compelling subscription.

So you didn't just call dibs on the Dvorak Concerto?
It's a very unusual thing, that I've never heard of, to have 3 subscription concerts of a world class orchestra like the LA Phil and having a different cello soloist with each concert. We discussed that and what the best order might be, and together we came up with that solution.

I was just joking, since a lot of cellists love and would consider the Dvorak to be the greatest work in the cello repertoire...
Even though Dvorak wrote this piece in 1896 well over 100 years ago ..for me it's still our greatest concerto, so I'm very happy to be performing it. (ed note: I wholeheartedly agree, and here is my favorite recording because you asked)

And for the opening concert, there are five cello concerti (both Haydn, Saint-Saëns, Vivaldi, and an American premiere by Demenga). You're also bringing in over 20 world class cellists in a 10 day span, and the finale will include a piece featuring over 100 cellists on stage...the logistics must have been a nightmare, where would you find 100 cellists in LA?

Well most of these cellists are traveling soloists, and some of them arranged their schedule so that they could be a part of this festival and that kind of enthusiasm is great for the festival. Most of them have been doing this for upwards of 25 years, and they are quite used to the travel. Except for maybe Weilerstein and Hakhnazaryan, who are younger. I believe Narek Hakhnazaryan is only 23 years old, he is the recent winner of the Tchaikovsky Competition (ed note: the Olympics of Classical music). We could have had double the number of cellists, but the final count is 110 that we can manage on the stage. Most are not based in Los Angeles, quite a few of them are traveling from all over the world to perform in the masterclasses, and will perform along with 13 of the guest artists in the piece...so it's a very broad based ensemble, which makes it really exciting.

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It says in youir bio that you love Tex-Mex and American football, things LA is not particularly known for, have you found a substitute here? What do you end up doing?
No I wait until I go to Texas and for football, you can watch that anywhere. I watched the Super Bowl and the matches that led up to it. I have to say though my favorite sport is tennis, that's what I played most of my life and I love watching someone like Federer on the court, he is a true artist. We love to go to movies and you can go at the very beginning of runs of movies (ed note: European movie releases are often delayed), but we don't have much time to do it. I somehow imagined that moving here I would have some more free time, but I'm actually busier than I've ever been in my life. Some of it is of my own doing, since i was the one that proposed this festival. There are long days.

And will there be any recordings or broadcasts of these performances?
The opening concert is going to be live on Classical KUSC ,and they are also taping other concerts for later broadcasts. We will be doing some recordings of our own, for documentary purposes.

Sounds great.... I feel that cello music in Los Angeles is very underrepresented.
I think that's true. One of the great things again about events like this, is that every concert is a unique opportunity to hear cellists that they simply would never hear. There's a limited number of cellists or violinists, though many more violinists who would come to an area like Los Angeles in the course of a season. For cellists, you might be talking about a half dozen (ed note: it's far fewer than a half dozen) who would come abroad or wherever to play. Here we have over 20 cellists in one 10 day period, many of whom have not played in Los Angeles for a long time. So it's a great opportunity and I hope people really avail themselves to it.