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This article was published 10/6/2011 (3453 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In February 1972, Mstislav Rostropovich, one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, gave a performance with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

After the concert, the gregarious Russian virtuoso -- nicknamed Slava -- joined some of the WSO players at a house party, where few could keep up with him as he downed vodka shots.

At 3 a.m., the 44-year-old legend decided to head for bed. Unfazed by the wintry darkness, he slung his Stradivarius cello on his back and cheerfully hoofed it all the way from River Heights to the Hotel Fort Garry.

Rostropovich died in 2007. But he likely would have loved the idea of 13 renowned cellists from seven countries gathering in Winnipeg to perform and enjoy each other's company this Wednesday through Sunday.

The luminaries are joining about 47 local, emerging and student cellists in the inaugural International Cello Festival of Canada.

Organizers believe the ambitious five-day extravaganza is the first-ever international cello festival in North America. It features 25 events that celebrate the soulful instrument in chamber works, solo recitals and concertos performed with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and the WSO.

Organized in partnership with the local Agassiz Music Festival, the cello party is the final presentation of the $4-million Winnipeg Cultural Capital of Canada 2010 program, which spilled over into 2011.

"This will be an unforgettable experience of enjoying a huge bath in cello sounds and cello passion and cello inspiration," says Ottawa-based festival artistic director Paul Marleyn, a cellist and former Winnipegger.

There are free performances at Old Market Square, The Forks and the Legislative Building, master classes, talks, a presentation on cello-making and concerts ranging from intimate to grand.

While many of the best-known classical works for the instrument will be performed, even Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, Duke Ellington's It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing and Metallica's heavy-metal Nothing Else Matters will be heard in cello arrangements.

The festival is honouring world-renowned cellist Zara Nelsova (1918-2002), who was born here and lived in the North End until the age of 10, by creating the Zara Nelsova Award for an emerging Canadian cellist. Three finalists have been selected and will compete for the title. A CBC film of Nelsova performing will also be screened.

"She was described as the greatest female cellist ever by Rostropovich," says Marleyn, 47, who met the "amazing lady" when she visited Winnipeg near the end of her life.

Festival venues include Westminster United Church, Crescent Fort Rouge United Church, the University of Winnipeg's Convocation Hall and Eckhardt-Gramatté Hall and the Centennial Concert Hall.

The gala finale at the Concert Hall on June 19, featuring the full WSO and six of the top guest cellists, will finish with 55 cellists wielding their bows en masse for two pieces.

"It'll be like a tsunami of cello sound," says Marleyn.

The festival's stars include Shauna Rolston, Yegor Dyachkov and Denise Djokic from Canada, Jian Wang from China, Frans Helmerson from Sweden, Natalia Gutman from Russia and Colin Carr from England. Swiss-born brothers Patrick and Thomas Demenga, who form one of the world's top cello duos, are also in the lineup.

All the WSO cellists are involved, particularly principal Yuri Hooker.

Organizers will wait to see how successful the festival is before deciding whether it will be held again, Marleyn says. Tickets are selling well.

Cellists, he says, are fun-loving, sociable and always up for a late-night jam. "A lot of these cellists actually are coming for much less than their normal fee, because they like to party with friends," he says. "Part of the festival spirit is you throw yourself into this crazy world of cello everywhere, at all hours of the day."

Many top cellists play rare Italian instruments that are 300 years old. When they fly, they usually book the seat next to them for their precious companion.

"It's expensive. I always ask for a meal for the cello," Marelyn quips.

"I'm not sure the Winnipeg international airport knows what's coming. Frans Helmerson's cello . . . is probably worth $4 million. There's a wonderful Canadian cellist, Rachel Mercer, who is coming with a Stradivarius, on loan to her from the Canada Council. That cello has to be worth about $3 million."

The cello, whose name is short for the Italian "violoncello," is the favourite instrument of many music lovers. It can be sensual, romantic and deeply poetic, seemingly able to sing about the human spirit.

"The beautiful, chocolatey, rich sound is the closest sound to the human voice, I think, of any instrument in terms of the pitch range, but also the texture," Marelyn says. "It has such a human sound."

The great Rostropovich will be fondly remembered on June 17, when Helmerson, Hooker and Djokic each play one of three suites in a performance called The Britten Suites -- for Slava!

The cellist and British composer Benjamin Britten were friends. Britten wrote three famous suites dedicated to Rostropovich in 1964, '67 and '71. The final one was inspired by Britten hearing Slava play Bach's unaccompanied cello suites.

"There's a nice story about the third suite," Marelyn says. "After Britten died, Slava found it so moving that he never recorded it. He couldn't record it, because he said he always broke down in tears when he played it."