Roger Lebow is the quintessential chamber musician. He is founding member of the Armadillo String Quartet, Clarion Trio and Xtet ensemble, which specializes in new music. In addition, he was principal cellist of the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra and member of the Philadelphia String Quartet. Lebow is guest artist at festivals such as Oregon Bach Festival, Cabrillo Music Festival, and plays on soundtracks for film and recordings. His performances combine traditional and experimental genres that include cello concertos of Arthur Honegger and Byron Adams (2001), and compositions of Benjamin Britten, George Crumb. He also performs early music on the Baroque cello and viola da gamba. His discography of chamber music is featured on the Delos, New World, Water Lily Acoustics labels, among others. Lebow’s illustrious teachers included Gabor Rejto, Laurence Lesser, Robert Sayre. He is on the faculty of Pomona College (Claremont, California). Lebow talks about cellists as artists, real people and fans of Gregor Piatigorsky.
Unless the title of this article lulls you to sleep, I would like to recall an event that happened in 1984 when the Philadelphia String Quartet, of which I was a member, was in Phoenix, Arizona during the first International Cello Festival. I attended the opening program in which Mstislav Rostropovich gave the keynote speech. It was a charming talk, delivered in Slava’s idiosyncratic use of the English language. One remark he made reduced the large audience to hysterics. “Can you imagine violinists having such a convention,” he said. Cellists are a sociable clan. Perhaps it’s inherent to an instrument whose literature is largely collaborative, despite a full share of solo repertoire. Maybe it’s the fact that our mother didn’t promise us we’d all be the next Jascha Heifetz. Or maybe it’s just the soothing, human-voice sound associated with the instrument. Cellists are far more likely to have real lives and be intrigued by interests beyond the cello. Whatever the reason, seeing someone toting a cello case seems to be sufficient invitation for fellow instrumentalists to start chatting.
The second Piatigorsky International Cello Festival was held in May, 2016 at the University of Southern California (USC), and became an exuberant tribute to the gregarious and artistic devotion of the fraternity of cellists and their fellow travelers. Even before the festival got underway, I had been thinking about the idea of community and the musician’s place in society, which was spurred on by a review of Sebastian Junger’s latest book, Tribe (HarperCollins), in which critic Jennifer Senior wrote: “Mr. Junger’s premise is simple: Modern civilization may be swell, giving us unimaginable autonomy and material bounty. But it has also deprived us of the psychologically invaluable sense of community and interdependence that we hominids enjoyed for millions of years. It is only during moments of great adversity that we come together and enjoy that kind of fellowship – which may explain why, paradoxically, we thrive during those moments.”
I’m fascinated by the fact that this country is wanting in nothing, yet we seem to have precious few attachments to the spirituality offered by great art.
My own travels and reading has shown that many countries embrace creative artists as integral members of society, alongside the workforce. I had the daffy dream when growing up, of being part of a world of doctors, teachers, plumbers, cellists, where each contribute to the common good. After all, I did go to college in the 1960’s. So I was pleased that the Piatigorsky festival, which many of us participated in or attended (strewn across several venues from the Walt Disney Concert Hall to USC) brought together notable concertizing cellists that included well-known Piatigorsky students Laurence Lesser, Jeffrey Solow, Mischa Maisky and Raphael Wallfisch. Surprisingly, two former students were not there; Nathaniel Rosen, the American cellist who won gold at the 1978 Tchaikovsky Competition and Terry King, who wrote the definitive biography, “Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist, (McFarland). Also missing, through not in memory, was cellist Daniel Smith (he passed away in 2011), who Piatigorsky had selected to be his assistant at USC. The festival’s direct link to Piatigorsky is perhaps fated to diminish year to year, as the youngest of the great artist’s students are now in their 60’s. To this biased observer, Piatigorsky’s artistic, aesthetic and philosophical approach to music, life and the cello is in danger of failing away from those generations who could benefit the most – despite the vigorous efforts of Ralph Kirshbaum, who holds the Gregor Piatigorsky Chair in Violoncello at USC and is the festival’s Artistic Director. Even as a listener, the pleasure of attending this event was abundant, and seeing so many cellists schlepping their instruments brought me back to music school days when one had time to enjoy late evening chamber music gatherings with friends. Most of all, it provided a great chance to hear many fine soloists in performance and master class. I even learned a lot by hanging around the hall where instrument makers and deals displayed their products. I tried some lovely instruments (not surprisingly, some of the new ones sound just as good as the old ones), spoke with cellists from Europe, Asia and the Americas and listened to a fourteen year-old playing Prokofiev’s Sinfonia concertante, Op. 125. I told him how impressive it was, to which he apologized for his limited English and I apologized for my limited Chinese! One of my activities at age fourteen was listening to American cellist Samuel Maye’s recording of the Sinfonia concertante.
We live in interesting times, so it’s good to cleave to things that have enduring value and meaning like the Piatigorsky festival, which confirms our membership in a special community dedicated to truth and beauty. After all, isn’t this why we brave freeway traffic, overstuffed schedules, smog and sunstroke to be with fellow musicians of our small, treasured community?