Playing with the big boys Cellist: Evan Drachman, grandson of the great Gregor Piatigorsky, is now recognized as a major talent himself.

March 09, 1997|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

In his lifetime, Gregor Piatigorsky's only competition as the world's greatest cellist was the equally legendary Pablo Casals. But as a cello teacher, Piatigorsky (1903-1976) was unrivalled. His student roster reads like a who's who in the cello world, with a short list that includes Stephen Kates, Mischa Maisky, Nathaniel Rosen, Raphael Wallfisch and Lawrence Lesser.

Part of what made Piatigorsky a great teacher was a heart that was even bigger than his cello. His students often became almost as dear to him as his own children.

Evan Drachman, tonight's recitalist in the Shriver Hall Series' annual Piatigorsky Memorial Concert, bears a special relation to the Russian-American cellist. For while the 32-year-old Drachman was never his student, he is an important part of the Piatigorsky legacy: All of his teachers were students of Piatigorsky, and he is himself the great cellist's grandson.

"One of my earliest memories is sitting at my grandfather's feet as he played for me," Drachman said in a telephone interview from his home in New York earlier this month. "His master classes are still occasionally broadcast, and when I hear his voice, I realize how inextricably linked it is for me with the sound of the cello."

But while the advantages "certainly outweigh the disadvantages," Drachman adds, "it's sometimes a little difficult being Piatigorsky's grandson."

The cellist was speaking not only about the frequent comparisons made between him and his grandfather, but also about his engagement by a concert series whose board president is his mother, Jephta, for an annual concert that is endowed by his family.

"My mother really wanted me to [give the concert], but she sat on her hands during the board's decision to engage me," Drachman says. "She didn't think itwas right."

Neither his mother, a gifted sculptor, nor his father, Daniel, a neurologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, need have worried.

Drachman's recitals and concerto performances have been warmly praised, not only in the United States, but also on world tours that have taken him as far as Russia and Taiwan. The degree to which other cellists esteem him can be gauged by his selection as one of the soloists who will perform under the baton of the celebrated cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in this year's World Cello Congress in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Talent and hard work

"Evan doesn't have to make apologies for his heritage," says Kates, one of the world's great cellists and Drachman's first teacher. "He's gotten to where he is through talent and a great deal of hard work."

Nevertheless, Drachman's career cannot be called typical and it has not been confined to playing the cello. More than seven years ago, when he was fresh out of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, he created the Piatigorsky Foundation, a nonprofit organization located in New York whose mission is to bring live performances to those who could not otherwise attend them. Drachman -- and the musicians he has since persuaded to join him -- have performed hundreds of solo recitals and chamber music concerts throughout the United States, mostly in retirement homes, but also in schools, churches and synagogues and in even less conventional performance spaces.

"We define a community as any place where people gather," Drachman says. "We've made one alliance with Carnegie Hall, which has asked us to help them give concerts for seniors; and we're also working with the city's department of culture to give concerts in homeless centers."

This may seem -- superficially, at least -- a strange way for the grandson of Piatigorsky to be making a career in music. But Kates says that's not the case.

"Piatigorsky was not the sort of man who measured a person by how many bucks he earned or a musician by how many prestigious engagements he had," Kates says. "And that's what also makes Evan special. So many young cellists depend on the system -- win this fellowship, enter that competition -- and become famous in the process. Evan always does the best he can, but he doesn't wish to, nor does he have to, put himself into the same competitive arena as his contemporaries."

The real thing

Drachman says he created his foundation because of his experiences as a student at Curtis.

"When we were preparing to give student recitals, we would often be sent to retirement homes for performances that would prepare us for our 'real' audiences," he says. "When we arrived -- usually about 45 minutes early -- people were already lined up for tickets. But when you'd walk out on the stage at Curtis, all you'd see were your 10 best friends and a few of your teachers. It occurred to me that the warm-ups were the 'real' thing. Those concerts were for people who were hungry for music and who usually could neither get to nor afford them. I thought, 'Why play for people who may not want to hear it, when you can for people who do?' "

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