Yosif Feigelson is recognized as one of the foremost cellists of his time. From his studies under Mstislav Rostropovich at the Moscow Conservatory to his role in pioneering music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg, he has helped define a daring role for the cello in contemporary classical music. "The Latvian-born cellist ... plays with enormous sound, vivid character and resourceful technique," wrote Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times. Others have noted the richness of Feigelson's tone, his flamboyant style, and his embodiment of Russian classical traditions. His eclectic choice of pieces ranges from Prokofiev's Sonata, opus 119, to George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So". He has performed throughout the United States and Europe, and he has been featured as a solo player and as a guest with a number of orchestras.
Feigelson was born into a musical family in Riga, Latvia. His father was a leading tenor in a Riga opera house and his mother played violin in the Riga orchestra. He began cello lessons with Don Yaffe at the Darzin Special School of Music at the age of six. Feigelson debuted with the Schumann Cello Concerto at age 12 and won first prize at the Concertino-Prague International Competition when he was 16. His biggest opportunity arrived when a family friend set up an audition with Mstislav Rostropovich. Rostropovich immediately invited him to study at the Moscow Conservatory. "I had regular lessons with him twice a week," Feigelson told in interview with Paul Tseng of the Internet Cello Society, "which was more than I could have ever hoped for."
Feigelson studied with the master between 1971 and 1974, learning a characteristically Russian method of playing the cello. "The Russian technique basically teaches you not to be stiff, to allow a natural relaxed state of our body" Feigelson explained to Tseng. "Using force is one of the biggest dangers of the cello. You must learn how to find moments of complete relaxation even in the middle of the most difficult passage." Rostropovich's association with the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, however, made him controversial with the Soviet government. In 1974, Rostropovich left Russia for England, and many believed that Feigelson and his family would follow. "When I came back to Moscow the local authorities, bureaucrats, and conservatory officials were just furious; they didn't want to see me," Feigelson told Tseng. He remained at the Moscow Conservatory and began studying under Natalia Gutman, a renowned cellist who also had her own difficulties with Soviet authorities. "When I graduated in 1976," he joked with Tseng, "she left conservatory immediately. I was the last student both of them had there."
Upon graduation, he was assigned a teaching job in a rural Latvian town of Daugavpils. Because this would severely limit his career as a musician, his father persuaded a military officer in the Moscow district to enlist his son's talents as a cello player in the Red Army Band. After this stint, Feigelson was allowed to live and to work in Moscow. In the mid-1970s he toured the entire Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He performed at the Dvorak Hall in Prague, the Stadtsoper in Berlin, and at the Great Hall of the Conservatory in Moscow. His renditions were recorded by the Panton, Olympia, and Melodiya labels. Life in the Soviet Union, however, continued to be difficult. His father and mother emigrated to Israel in 1979, and two years later, Feigelson decided to leave Russia for the United States.
As many musicians, Feigelson preferred to try his luck in New York. He had to start from scratch, as nobody knew about his career back in Russia. Step by step, he made connections, mostly through some old and some new friends already in music, and first engagements had followed. Feigelson had also become a member of the Amati Piano Trio under ICM Artists and under personal tutelage and mentorship of Isaac Stern.
But, real breakthrough didn’t come until 1988 when Yosif stepped in on a short notice to substitute ailing violinist Nathan Milstein. His New York orchestral debut with the New York Chamber Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz in Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto received accolades throughout New York press. Engagements at major halls as guest artist and recitalist in New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and rest of the country followed.
Feigelson returned numerous times to New York's 92nd Street Y, including a joint recital with singer Barbara Hendricks in 1999. His performance with the Detroit Symphony of the Dvořák Concerto was broadcast across the globe. He has also appeared as soloist with the orchestras of Seattle, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Richmond, Knoxville, Charleston, and many other towns. His European tours led him to United Kingdom, Germany, France, Holland, Italy, the Baltics and Israel. He was a recipient of a 1990 Avery Fisher Career Grant.
"Mr. Feigelson has been noted for the powerful, dark tone that the Soviet school of instrumental playing likes to turn out," wrote Bernard Holland of the New York Times, "but also for his exceptional control over the instrument." These qualities and an active touring schedule have led critics to recognize Feigelson as a distinct and influential cellist. One even called him “a Caruso of the cello” for a unique, “singing” quality; who knows, maybe his father’s early influence?
Music of Mieczyslaw Weinberg became one of Feigelson’s important strides. He has premiered his 24 Cello Preludes and Four Sonatas for unaccompanied cello in New York and in Europe, and made highly praised first recordings on the Olympia label. In addition to playing, Feigelson has been regularly giving master classes to the young string players in this country and abroad.