Cellist Shares his Passion for Argentina's Rich Musical Heritage

Cellist Shares his Passion for Argentina

Cello Professor Antonio Lysy's concert with the Capitol Ensemble led to a Latin Grammy win for "Pampas."

As a child, cellist Antonio Lysy, a music professor at UCLA, visited Argentina's Pampas grasslands with his father, a renowned violinist. Steeped in its music, Lysy this year performed a concert of music from Argentina, including a song that recently won a Latin Grammy Award.

By Cynthia Lee for UCLA Today

Although Argentina was not the land of Antonio Lysy’s birth, it well could have been. The vastness of the treeless grasslands of the Pampas that stretch as far as the eye can see is an image burned into his memory from visits he made there as a child with his Argentine-born father, famed violinist Alberto Lysy.

Antonio Lysy

So, too, is Argentina’s music etched into Lysy’s soul, from the rich rhythms of its folk songs to the passionate strains of the Tango, shaped by pre-Hispanic Amerindian traditions and Spanish-based Creole influences. Through his cello, Lysy, a professor in the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, shared this lush musical repertoire in a concert he played earlier this year at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

One of the songs he performed and recorded, "Pampas," recently won a prestigious 2010 Latin Grammy Award for best classical contemporary composition. The piece was written by Argentine-born Lalo Schifrin, a renowned film composer credited with more than 100 film (“Mission Impossible”) and television scores, whom Lysy commissioned for the piece. Schifrin adapted “Pampas” from the slow movement of a richly orchestrated guitar concerto he had written previously.

“I fell in love with the lyrical theme, which reawakened many images of the land and people of Argentina in my memory,” Lysy recalled later, but wondered how the song, which would be adapted for cello and piano, would sound without an orchestra.

“He told me, ‘Don’t worry — you leave that to me,’” Lysy recalled. And Schifrin turned out to be right. “I was just delighted with it from the beginning,” Lysy said.

Lysy is not letting the Grammy go to his head. What’s more meaningful to him is that the Grammy win may help sell his CD, "Antonio Lysy at the Broad: Music from Argentina," because 100 percent of the proceeds from the sales through his record producer, Yarlung Records, fund music scholarships for needy children who otherwise can’t afford to attend the SOL-LA Music Academy in Santa Monica. Founded by his wife, Margaret Flanagan Lysy, a violinist and lecturer at the Herb Alpert School, the Santa Monica performing arts school fosters an inclusive, family-oriented community in which young people can enjoy a camaraderie forged in music. The program is modeled on the training and the support that both Lysys received when they were growing up — he in England and she in Northern Ireland. The two met while studying at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.

Although Lysy was raised in a musical environment, it was rough going early on, he recalled. To keep his father happy, Lysy grudgingly took private music lessons. “I disliked it,” he said, smiling. “It wasn’t really what I wanted to do. It wasn’t my passion.”

His father, Alberto Lysy — a protégé of renowned violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin — performed all over the world and honed his reputation as a music educator when he became director of the International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland.

Only after going to a specialized boarding school founded by Menuhin where the curriculum was divided equally between music and academics did Lysy’s love for music — as well as his talent for it — emerge. “I started to enjoy it more as a result of being around other kids who did it,” he said. “You don’t feel so ostracized or weird.”

Today, Lysy has nothing but genuine appreciation for the excellent training he received and the opportunities he's enjoyed attending and playing at music festivals, chamber music fests and concerts all over Europe and Asia. And these experiences now enrich his teaching at UCLA, where he came eight years ago after teaching music at McGill University in Montreal.

“Sometimes when I listen to my students, I hear more intelligence, more raw talent, more instincts than I ever had at their age,” he said of his 14 cello students. “The only thing they lack is really good teaching … and opportunity. But give them that, they should be able to succeed at least as well as I did, if not better. So that drives me to always give them more.”

The chamber music festival that Lysy started at his grandparents' estate in Tuscany is now in its 23rd year.

The chamber music festival that Lysy started at his grandparents' estate in Tuscany is now in its 23rd year.

When summer arrives, Lysy leaves L.A. to perform at locations around the world. For the last 23 years, an annual stop has been Val d'Orcia, his grandparents’ estate in Tuscany that has become home to a chamber music festival Lysy founded. Every year since 1977, internationally known musicians gather there to perform at the Incontri in Terra di Siena.

“We have just the right ingredients to keep it going,” Lysy said. “It’s a great place to visit. The artists love going there. There’s enough interest on the part of the public to sustain it. And I’ve found ways to bring diverse artists to it.”

The cellist is also looking forward to being a first-time grandfather when his daughter, Sofia, gives birth in Montreal this month. His other two children, Clara, 16, and Aidan, 11, are pursuing their own musical interests. Clara, a dynamic violinist and songwriter, has already produced her own CD.  

While he spends summers performing at various venues and is planning another concert of Argentinian music in 2012 at the Broad, Lysy said lightheartedly, “I’m not trying to become the next world-renowned cello sensation. Teaching has always been a very strong part of who I am. And I enjoy it very, very much. But I also like the balance between teaching and performing — keeping my fingers, interest and repertoire alive so that when I come back to my students, I’m motivated and inspired.” 

Published: Monday, December 06, 2010