Cellist-Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich Dies at 80
Friday, April 27, 2007; 11:04 AM
Mstislav Rostropovich, the former music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, a world-class cellist, and the dominating icon on the musical panorama of metropolitan Washington for two decades , died in Moscow today.
The famed musician was 80, his life spanning exile from the former Soviet Union to an emotional birthday celebration at the Kremlin last month where he was toasted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rostropovich had suffered from intestinal cancer and died in the hospital, wires services reported, quoting the Russian News Agency and Rostropovich's spokeswoman.
A Russian emigre, Rostropovich made his American conducting debut with the National Symphony in 1975 in a concert so stunning that Washington Post music critic Paul Hume called it "a night to tell your children and grandchildren about." Within weeks, the symphony management hired him to conduct and manage the orchestra, beginning in 1977. The music community greeted him as a savior and Time magazine put him on its cover.
A charismatic, demonstrative and energetic musician, Rostropovich led the National Symphony for 17 years. He picked up the conductor's baton of an orchestra that critics had called undernourished, uninspired and demoralized, and he raised its performance standards dramatically, in every section, from strings to brass. "The kind of chemistry that 'Slava' can generate with musicians is something very few orchestras ever get an opportunity to experience," James DePriest, an associate conductor of the National Symphony, said in 1977.
To concert-going Washingtonians, Rostropovich had a personal magnetism and mystique that generated new and unprecedented levels of enthusiasm. Within a few months after his arrival, his entrances on the concert stage were being routinely met with spirited and sustained ovations. Performances regularly sold out, and the orchestra's new music director had the standing and prestige to draw some of the world's leading musicians as guest artists in Washington.
"The world has lost an incomparable musician, an ardent spokesperson for human rights, and an extraordinary human being," the orchestra said in a statement issued today. "The National Symphony has also lost a great leader, a caring mentor, and a beloved friend."
As a cellist, Rostropovich was ranked with -- and sometimes ahead of -- the legendary Pablo Casals, who had taught Rostropovich's father. After Casals died in 1973, Rostropovich was widely, but not universally, described as the best in the world. In the course of his career, he had developed personal relationships with such Russian composers as Sergei Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich and Aram Khachaturian; such Westerners as Leonard Bernstein, Walter Piston and Benjamin Britten. All of them wrote musical compositions expressly for him. By the end of his career, Rostropovich had performed the premieres of 70 new works for the cello, most of which had been dedicated to him.
"It is my aim, my destination in life to make the cello as beloved an instrument as the violin and piano," Rostropovich liked to say, adding that in the making of music, emotion was more important than technique. "You must play for the love of music. Perfect technique is not as important as making music from the heart."
For his own technical expertise, he offered only this explanation: "I don't even know why my hands do certain things sometimes. They just grab for notes."
To the conductor's podium he brought a singular intensity and expressiveness, and he demanded the same of his musicians, whom he liked to call "family." With wild flailing of his arms and tossing of his silvery mane of hair, and facial expressions that changed with the mood of the music, he led his orchestra, always seeking more feeling.
"Play as if you are being tickled in the sides, ah-hahaha, ah-hahaha," he would plead with his woodwinds. "You sing nicely, but I want you to sing like fanatics," he would exhort a chorus.
At least a few critics thought his music was too emotional. Alan M. Kriegsman wrote in The Post in 1977: "Rostropovich, both as a conductor and a cellist, frequently lets his drive for impassioned expression get the better of his sense of order, style or euphony." The Post's Joseph McLellan called him "mercurial" adding that "he can be one of the world's best conductors or he can be mediocre -- sometimes on the same evening."