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Cellist-Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich Dies at 80

By Bart Barnes
Special to the Washington Post
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."

His musical favorites were the compositions of the Russian classical masters. Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," performed outdoors and complete with a battery of real cannons, was always a grand spectacle, and loved by audiences everywhere.

From the day he became musical director of the National Symphony it had been his dream that one day he would go back to Russia with his orchestra to play Russian music for his native countrymen. "Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich," he said, "those are the things I would like to show them how to play."

He had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1978 after befriending political dissidents, and for years he was forced to live in exile. But in February 1990, he was allowed to return. His citizenship was restored and at the invitation of the Soviet government he led the National Symphony in concerts in Moscow and Leningrad. At the Moscow Conservatory's Great Hall, packed with high-ranking officials including Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet premiere, Rostropovich led the National Symphony in a program filled with sad music, including Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" Symphony and Shostakovich's anguished Fifth Symphony, which was written at the height of the Stalinist purges in 1937.

For his final encore, he chose an American classic, John Philip Sousa's rousing "Stars and Stripes Forever," the traditional finale of the National Symphony's annual Fourth-of-July concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol in Washington. The Moscow audience responded with a standing ovation. Later, amidst bear hugs and vodka toasts at a post-concert reception at the U.S. Embassy, Rostropovich was asked why he'd picked the "Stars and Stripes Forever." The idea, he said, came "from the heart."

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927, in Baku, a port on the Caspian Sea in the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. His family was of mixed Polish, Czech, German, French, Lithuanian and Russian ancestry, with a musical heritage of several generations.

His father, Leopold, was a cellist who had studied under Casals, and his grandfather was a pianist. His mother also was a pianist, and his maternal grandmother had been director of a music school in the Ural Mountains. An older sister, Veronkia, would become a violinist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1931 the family moved to Moscow where Leopold Rostropovich taught music and played cello with a radio orchestra. At 4, Rostropovich taught himself to play the piano. Under the tutelage of his father he made his cello debut at 8, accompanied by his sister on a violin. He attended a school for musically gifted children and graduated in 1941, the same year Nazi Germany launched its massive invasion, bringing the Soviet Union into World War II.

As the German army advanced on Moscow, the family was evacuated east to Orenburg, where in 1942 Leopold Rostropovich died. As the war continued the younger Rostropovich, now a teenager, played his cello for wounded troops, and for war workers on the home front as far east as Siberia.

These were years of extreme hardship. Food was scarce as were most of the basic necessities of life. Poverty, hunger, sickness and cold were omnipresent. Strangers came to the assistance of the Rostropovich family. Years later, as a world famous musician, Rostropovich would remember this period as a time when he began to feel "the goodness of people for the first time," and he forged deep emotional and spiritual bonds with his native countrymen that would last a lifetime.

In 1943, with the German army now in retreat, Rostropovich returned to Moscow with his mother and sister and began studying music at the Moscow Conservatory. He studied composition with Shostakovich, who became his friend and mentor.

In 1948, a time of high Cold War tension, the Soviet government attacked Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and other modern composers for "formalistic distortions and anti-democratic tendencies alien to the Soviet people." Many of their compositions were banned, and Shostakovich was removed from the Moscow Conservatory faculty. In a gesture of solidarity, Rostropovich promptly resigned from the conservatory.

He moved into the home of the aging Prokofiev, and he lived with the composer until his death in 1953. After the events of 1948, Rostropovich would later admit, he was convinced there was something fundamentally wrong with the Soviet system, and he no longer trusted the government.

But his musical career was beginning to flourish. During the decade of the 1950s he would win the Lenin Prize, two Stalin Prizes and the Award of People's Artist of the USSR. After the death of Stalin in 1953, the Kremlin decreed the rehabilitation of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and they were restored to good artistic standing. Rostropovich returned to the Moscow Conservatory as a teacher.

In 1955 he went to Prague to judge a cello competition. There he met an engaging and attractive soprano with the Bolshoi Opera Company, Galina Vishnevskaya. Four days later they were married. Over the ensuing years, they would tour together. In addition to playing cello, Rostropovich would play piano as accompanist for his wife's recitals. They also did separate artistic tours. They had two daughters, Olgaand Yelena Both girls would become musicians.

A thaw in relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in this period was followed by an agreement on cultural exchanges, and Rostropovich was among the Soviet artists allowed to perform in the West. He was stunning in his American debut at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1956, and the echoes of this triumph reverberated in Moscow where it was seen as evidence of the cultural superiority of Russian socialism over the decadence of the capitalistic United States.

This made Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya celebrated artists of the USSR, and they were accorded the privileges of the Soviet elite. They had a spacious apartment in Moscow and a country house in an exclusive area reserved for high officials and leading artists. They had a car and servants at their disposal. They were encouraged to travel outside the Soviet Union, and they met the major Western musicians and composers. By the mid-1960s, Rostropovich was ranked with Casals as a master world-class cellist.

Although he insisted he was an "artist and musician, not a politician," he was unable to remain silent and politically neutral. He spoke out against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya invited writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn to stay in their country dacha outside Moscow in the late 1960s. Solzhenitsyn would win a Nobel Prize for literature, but this only brought intensified vilification from the Soviet leadership. Still, he got shelter and support at the Rostropovich dacha, and the Rostropovichs were outspoken in their denunciations of those who were attacking the writer.

In a letter to four Soviet newspapers, they excoriated government censorship, and they recalled the attacks on composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich during the Stalinist era. "Why is it?" they asked, "that in our literature and our art, the decisive word so often belongs to people who are absolutely incompetent in these fields?"

When the Soviet media refused to print their letter, they took it to the Western press, where its publication provoked a storm of controversy.

Soviet officials responded with an effort to subvert Rostropovich's standing as a musician. He was forbidden to travel outside the Soviet Union and was no longer allowed to perform with the best orchestras or play in the great concert halls of the major Soviet cities. In 1974, after a personal plea from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, the travel ban was lifted. He was issued a passport and with his wife he came to the United States.

"I was born anew," Rostropovich later told Time magazine. "I found a great deal more in music than I did when I lived in the Soviet Union. I reexamined everything and I could see everything more vividly. All composers, even Beethoven, came to mean more."

He didn't speak the language of his new country, he had nowhere to live and he had no real friends, but he found a place in Washington to rebuild his career.

In his first press conference as music director of the national symphony, he said his model in this role would be Serge Koussevitzky, another Russian emigre musician who in 25 years as music director of the Boston Symphony had built the organization into a first-class orchestra.

In his role as National Symphony music director, Rostropovich not only conducted the orchestra; he also hired and fired its musicians, persuaded name soloists and guest conductors to come to Washington, performed a variety of public relations chores, helped with fundraising and represented the orchestra at social functions.

As a conductor and cello soloist he did up to 140 concerts a year, and his annual income was well into seven figures. He traveled about the United States and around the World. He had an apartment at the Watergate in Washington, a luxury apartment in Paris and he built a country house for Galina Vishnevskaya near a Russian Orthodox monastery in Upstate New York.

In the nation's capital, he became a leading celebrity, known universally by his nickname, "Slava." His heavily accented but nevertheless eloquent English; his appetites for music, food and vodka, which he kept in a freezer; his bear hugs; and his flair for the dramatic gesture endeared him to the public.

He demanded much of his orchestra. In return, he offered loyalty and friendship, not only to his musicians but to the support staff.

In 1982 a stagehand named Bull McNeil, who traveled with the orchestra, died. At the Alexandria funeral parlor where the wake was being held, Rostropovich showed up unannounced with his cello shortly before closing time. He walked over to the open coffin, said a short prayer, played some music on the cello and then left, in silence.

As he rebuilt a life in the West, his standing in the Soviet Union sank. In 1978 the Soviet government, denouncing Rostropovich and his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, as "ideological degenerates," revoked their citizenship and barred them from returning to their homeland.

The action against Rostropovich, by the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, coincided with a period of rigid Kremlin orthodoxy. An extraordinary number of the country's leading virtuosos in the fields of dance and music fled the country and sought artistic fulfillment in the West, feeling their freedom of expression had been sharply curtailed in the Soviet Union. The defectors included such top names in Soviet ballet as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova.

During his years of exile, Rostropovich had often described himself as "an ambassador of the Russian people -- not their rotten government -- and Russian music."

Over time, change came to the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev became premiere, bringing a political philosophy he called "glasnost"--openness in English -- to the Soviet government. The heavy hand of artistic orthodoxy was lightened. Censorship was curtailed. The Moscow to which Rostropovich returned with the National Symphony in 1990 was a vastly different place from he one he'd left 16 years earlier.

He began that return with a visit to Novodevichy Cemetery, where he laid flowers on the grave of his former mentor, Shostakovich. On his second day back in Moscow, Rostropovich visited another cemetery and the grave of dissident Andrei Sakarov, whom he called "the greatest man of the 20th century."

He would return to his homeland again, in 1991, to stand with Russian leader Boris Yeltsin against the plotters in an abortive August coup d'etat. For this he received a new award, the State Prize of Russia.

Yeltsin, Rostropovich's long-term friend and admirer, died on Monday.

Rostropovich was 66 when he retired from the National Symphony, old enough to start slowing down, but not ready for full retirement. He divided his time between France, the United States and Russia, leading orchestras around the world as a guest conductor and continuing to give concerts as a solo cellist.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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