Bringing the life and legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky to the big screen in ‘The Cellist’ |

Bringing the life and legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky to the big screen in ‘The Cellist’

George Eldred and Laura Thielen
Special to the Aspen Times
"The Cellist" will screen Sunday at Paepcke Auditorium.
Courtesy photo


What: ‘The Cellist’ film screening

Where: Paepcke Auditorium

When: Sunday, July 28, 7 p.m.

How much: $20

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info: the screening is part of the Eisner/Lauder New Views Documentaries and Dialogue Series, presented by Aspen Institute Arts Program in collaboration with Aspen Film. Producer Hamid Shams will be on-hand for a post-screening discussion with cellist Brinton Smith, who will also perform.



“Piatigorsky’s legacy is felt so strongly today, almost a half century after his death, because he was not only one of the 20th century’s greatest cellists, but also a devoted teacher who taught and influenced virtually all of the major cellists of the next generation, many of whom are the teachers of today’s students. Almost every American cellist is a student or a ‘grand-student’ of Grisha’s. He was not only one of the greatest cellists, but also one of the great personalities, capable of being both a hilarious raconteur and a deeply philosophical mentor with an infectious warmth that makes it almost impossible to watch him onscreen without breaking into a smile.

“[He] was part of a wave of émigré musicians that America inherited that transformed our country from a musical afterthought of Europe to the center of the classical music world in a single generation. Their legacy is still strongly felt today, and in Piatigorsky’s case, to know him is to love him.”

– Brinton Smith, Aspen Music Festival and School faculty member and Houston Symphony principal cellist. Smith was a student of Zara Nelsova, whom he met in Aspen in 1988 and who herself studied under Piatigorsky, Smith recently completed recording Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s cello concerto, written for Piatigorsky in 1933.

Gregor Piatigorsky was one of the 20th century’s premier classical musicians, a beloved teacher, and larger-than-life personality whose story may not be familiar to most audiences today. Filmmakers Murray Grigor and Hamid Shams’s new documentary, “The Cellist,” offers to change that.

In 2015, with the blessing of the cellist’s family, Grigor and Shams began delving into the Piatigorsky Archives at the Colburn School of Music along with family materials, Piatigorsky’s autobiography and biographies by Terry King and Margaret Bartley.

“Murray originally researched and drafted a script as our guide, starting with Mr. Piatigorsky’s life in the Ukraine,” producer/cinematographer/editor Shams explained In a recent phone interview. “But we soon realized he is not a well-known figure outside the music world, as much as someone like Jascha Heifetz, so we needed to explain who he was.”

The filmmakers then embarked on an odyssey that led them from Los Angeles and New York to Moscow and beyond. Along the way they interviewed dozens of subjects—from YoYo Ma and Zubin Mehta to a who’s who of former students to the Bolshoi Orchestra’s first-chair cellist.

“Everyone kept referring us to somebody else,” Shams said. “We ended up interviewing over 30 people. Neither of us is a musician, and I think that was an asset. A musician might tell the story very differently. As non-musicians, we told Piatigorsky’s story based on what we learned from all these stories.”

Incorporating footage spanning the musician’s life and times (everything from performances to home movies), photographs, annotated music sheets, and some re-enactments, Grigor and Shams capture the vibrancy of Piatigorsky’s life and adventures. As for the rich musical soundtrack, primarily recordings of Piatigorsky performances, “the music chose us,” Shams noted.

Through this chorus of voices and visuals emerges a picture of a man of wit, compassion, and deep musicality. Born in 1903 in the Ukraine, Piatigorsky’s life spanned some of the 20th century’s most harrowing moments—Czar Nicholas’s pogroms, the Russian Revolution, and two World Wars. The man’s remarkable talent and ebullient character enabled him to transcend the challenges of his times. A child prodigy already displaying 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. Noted 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 the famous “million dollar trio” with Arthur Rubenstein and Jascha Heifetz. A number of composers wrote works for him including Sergei Prokofiev, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and Igor Stravinsky.

Piatigorsky dedicated himself to “popularizing the cello,” by which he meant developing audience appreciation for the resonant “box with four strings” as a solo instrument. In later life, the consummate performer 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.

Perhaps the deepest pleasure of this warm portrait, which screens Sunday at the Aspen Institute’s New Views documentary series, are those sections devoted to Piatigorsky’s legacy as a devoted and generous teacher and mentor. Blending a delightful sampling of master classes with the reminiscences of family, friends, colleagues, and, most especially, former students, Grigor and Shams evoke a vivid impression of a man who loved people as much as he loved music.

The film’s final version, said Shams, “developed out of the journey that we took and the people we spoke with. One thing that was the most surprising was the willingness of people to come forward and help us out. The eagerness that we saw in his students and family. The cooperation we got from everyone was so wonderful. It’s very rewarding to make a film about someone who was a great man and a great human being and also, though he wouldn’t like us to say so himself, a musical genius. Every moment became a joyous moment.”

An exuberant personality with a zest for life, Piatigorsky was a mesmerizing storyteller, who himself generated many tales.

“The most wonderful part about making the film were the anecdotes,” Shams continued, “and how all those who knew him were trying to tell their stories about him, imitating his accent. You could feel at the end of each interview how much you wanted to meet the man.”