One of the strengths of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra is having principal players capable of taking the concerto spot. On Thursday, Eliah Sakakushev-von Bismarck is the featured cello soloist, under the orchestra's newly-appointed music director, Giordano Bellincampi.

Sakakushev-von Bismarck, responsible for so much musical joy around Auckland concert halls over the last four years, pauses when I ask how important his native Bulgaria is to him. "Bulgaria's a sad place," he says. "The countryside is beautiful but the country's history is one of endless oppression."

His grandfather, a cellist and founding member of the Philharmonic Orchestra in his home city of Plovdiv, inspired him to take up the instrument that he now describes as his voice. "It's the only string instrument that uses both the bass and treble register and still sounds human. I couldn't imagine playing anything else."

We talk cellists and the names of Pierre Fournier and Mstislav Rostropovich come up. He likes the Frenchman for "classical, elegant and sophisticated playing that's always refined" and the Russian is "a bit muscly perhaps, but so good in the Russian and Slavic repertoire".


Sakakushev-von Bismarck adores chamber music and feels privileged to be artistic director of Bavaria's Musikfest Schloss Wonfurt, alongside his violinist wife, Caroline von Bismarck.

"My wife's family owns a 1100-year-old castle, with a courtyard that provides an amazing acoustic for music-making," he explains. "I have my network of friends and invite them to play. What better way could there be to make music?"

The festival was never intended as a commercial proposition, with audiences of 100 at most, and he reflects that a venture like this would be difficult here. "It would have to be privately initiated. Governments have a crucial role in fostering art and ours does hardly anything compared with what happens in Europe. Culture cannot be treated as commercial product. There must be a deep appreciation of its significance. Without that respect, any society is going to be culturally limited."

We are fortunate to have the APO adding so much richness to so many layers of our cultural life and I cannot resist asking Sakakushev-von Bismarck what have been his most rewarding programmes.

Without hesitation, he singles out July's pairing of violinist Isabelle Faust playing Mendelssohn and Gunter Neuhold conducting Bruckner.

"That one ticked all the boxes for me. Bruckner's Seventh Symphony is a favourite and I learnt a tremendous lot from working with Gunter Neuhold. He was doing so much more than just feeding us the beat."

Sakakushev-von Bismarck is looking forward to sharing the stage with Giordano Bellincampi next week. "I've already seen him accompanying other soloists and I'm interested in what he brings to the score and how this combines with my own ideas."

The cellist admits that, if he has one demon to contend with, it is his determination to achieve the very highest standards possible. "I'm never happy if I don't measure up to my own criteria. While others have their expectations of you, I fear my own far more. You might say the enemy lies within."


On Thursday Sakakushev-von Bismarck is offering two short works, a lush 1893 Romance by Richard Strauss that he describes as "very Germanic" and an Adagio with Variations by the Italian composer Respighi.

"This was originally written as a second movement of a concerto. It's very Italian, very picturesque, Botticellian," he exclaims while admitting some may hear a French influence as well in music that is "as fresh as it is sentimental".



Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

Where and when:

Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm