“THE CELLIST”— Musicianship, Wit and Humanity


Musicianship, Wit and Humanity

Amos Lassen

Gregor Piatigorsky was one of the 20th century’s premier classical musicians, a beloved teacher, and larger-than-life personality. Filmmakers Murray Grigor and Hamid Shams’s documentary, “The Cellist,” introduces him to us.

In 2015, with the blessing of the cellist’s family, Grigor and Shams began examining the Piatigorsky Archives at the Colburn School of Music . They also researched family materials, Piatigorsky’s autobiography and biographies by Terry King and Margaret Bartley. The filmmakers went on a journey from Los Angeles and New York to Moscow and beyond. As they traveled, they interviewed 30 people including YoYo Ma and Zubin Mehta, a who’s who of former students and the Bolshoi Orchestra’s first-chair cellist. Piatigorsky’s story is based on what was learned from all these stories.

The documentary incorporates footage that spans the musician’s life and times (everything from performances to home movies), photographs, annotated music sheets, and some re-enactments. Grigor and Shams show us the vibrancy of Piatigorsky’s life and adventures. The musical soundtrack consists of primarily recordings of Piatigorsky performances.

What we see is a picture of a man of wit, compassion, and deep musicality. Piatigorsky was born in the Ukraine in 1903 and his life spanned some of the 20th century’s most harrowing moments—Czar Nicholas’s pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and two World Wars. His remarkable talent and character enabled him to transcend the challenges of his times. He already showed musical proficiency at the age of 7, by 15 he was first chair in the Bolshoi Orchestra. He escaped the Soviet Union in the 1920s and launched an international career. He was known for his virtuoso technique and soulful interpretations of a broad range of the classical repertoire. Piatigorsky played in renowned orchestras across Europe and North America. He toured and recorded in chamber groups with other celebrated performers, including Arthur Rubenstein and Jascha Heifetz. A number of composers wrote works for him including Sergei Prokofiev, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Igor Stravinsky.

Piatigorsky was totally dedicated to “popularizing the cello” and this meant  developing audience appreciation for the cello as a solo instrument. In later life, he devoted himself to imparting his love for the cello to new generations of young musicians. His students went on to teach at leading conservatories and universities and to perform as principal cellists in orchestras throughout the world. Piatigorsky left a legacy as a devoted and generous teacher and mentor. Grigor and Shams provide a vivid impression of a man who loved people as much as he loved music.

Much of the research that went into the making “The Cellist” was guided by Piatigorsky protégé Terry King, whose “Gregor Piatigorsky: The Life and Career of the Virtuoso Cellist” is the definitive biography and best guide to how Piatigorsky made music.