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February 20, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, February 20, 2004

Leading with his cello Leading with his cello (February 20, 2004)

Michail Gelfandbein to perform at El Camino Youth Symphony's annual benefit

by Dana Green

When renowned cellist Michail Gelfandbein and his wife, pianist Irina Sharogradsky, play Beethoven's "Sonata No. 4," they have a slight advantage -- they have had four decades to get it just right.

"We've played it many times, our whole life -- it's one of our favorites," Gelfandbein said.

The Russian-born couple, who have played chamber music together internationally for more than 40 years, will be putting their experience to good use on Sunday, when they perform Beethoven's sonata at the El Camino Youth Symphony's annual benefit recital, to be held at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts.

Gelfandbein serves as conductor and cello instructor for the youth symphony, which was created in 1963 to offer orchestral experience and musical training to aspiring young musicians. Students from as far away as Santa Cruz and as young as 6 years old have auditioned for the Palo Alto group.

Gelfandbein's experience as a world-class musician is one of the symphony's major draws. He studied at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music under famed conductor and cellist Mstilav Rostropovich, followed by postgraduate studies in conducting.

Sharogradsky also studied at the Leningrad Conservatory, earning her doctorate degree. After her studies, she eventually joined the faculty, teaching for 25 years at the school's Rimsky-Korsakov Music College.

The two met while she was accompanying some of Rostropovich's cello students on the piano.

"We started to play together -- and after that we married," Gelfandbein said with a smile.

After conservatory, Gelfandbein toured worldwide with the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra for more than two decades, playing in the most prestigious concert halls in Europe and Asia. The couple also played chamber duets together across the Soviet Union.

In 1985, Gelfandbein played a sonata by revered Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to a packed crowd at Leningrad Philharmonic Hall -- with Shostakovich sitting in the audience.

"Afterwards, he congratulated us ... it was a memorable moment," Gelfandbein said.

During the political turmoil at the end of the Soviet era, the couple emigrated to Israel with their children, where Gelfandbein served as the co-principal cellist in the Tel Aviv Opera Orchestra. In 1996, they moved to the United States, joining their daughter and her family in Palo Alto.

El Camino Youth Symphony Director Cathy Spieth said Gelfandbein's exceptional skill brings the introductory orchestras to a higher level.

"It's leaps and bounds since he came," Spieth said. "He is a wonderful combination of distinguished and kind."

Gelfandbein demonstrates the perfect sound and encourages his students to strive for that perfection, she said.

"He has a real talent working with young people. ... He'll take an ensemble, find the best repertoire, and bring them to a level where they are playing it perfectly," Spieth said. "Our beginning orchestra is just fabulous, and it's because of him."

Some of Gelfandbein's individual students are now following in his musical footsteps. Benjamin Lai, who had studied with Gelfandbein since he was 4 years old, recently moved with his family to New York to continue his studies. The 10-year-old Lai's accomplishments -- which include performing at the 2003 Grammies in a tribute to Rostropovich -- are the envy of musicians twice his age.

Gelfandbein, a Palo Alto resident, has had to get used to his students moving up in the musical world.

"I feel a little pity because he (Lai) leave (sic) me, but that's life," Gelfandbein said, smiling.

Lai and another of Gelfandbein's students, Gugene Kang, a current member of the El Camino Youth Symphony, were recently chosen to compete in the International Tchaikovsky Youth Competition, to be held this March in Japan. Only five students from the United States were invited to the competition -- two of them trained by Gelfandbein.

Gelfandbein and Sharogradsky's love for music was inherited by their daughter, Olga Yoffe, a piano instructor, and their granddaughter, Paula, a student at Palo Alto High School and a member of El Camino Youth Symphony.

Yoffe said that her father is a tough but fair teacher.

"Paula would play in the orchestra, and he would tell her, 'OK, you did alright,'" Yoffe recalled. "'Dad, she was great,' I would say.

"I don't want people to think she's doing that because she's my granddaughter," Gelfandbein said. "She's doing that because she's good.'"

On stage, the couple, who recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, make a seamless musical team, according to their daughter.

"He has unbelievable musicianship," Yoffe said. "And she has such a special touch for the piano -- not every great pianist has that touch. Under her hands, every piano sounds absolutely amazing."

"They are great partners in life," Yoffe said. "When they are playing together, it's obvious."

What; El Camino Youth Symphony's Benefit Recital 2004. The program will feature violinist Alexander Barantschik, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, performing solo and in a duet with violinist Alena Tsoi; cellist and ECYS conductor Michail Gelfandbein with pianist Irina Sharogradsky; violist Melissa Huang; and ECYS Flute Ensemble faculty, Monokrome Flute Quartet.

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. (corner of Mercy)

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $35 general; $25 students and seniors, and are only available from the Mountain View Center Ticket Office, (650) 903-6000 or

Info: Please call (650) 327-2611 or visit

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