Mstislav Rostropovich, "The Magnificent Maestro" of the NSO
Friday, April 27, 2007; 10:06 AM
Mstislav Rostropovich died this morning in the city he had always considered his home -- in Moscow, where he had been flown from Paris by private jet in February after it became apparent that he could not long survive.
"Music and art are a whole spiritual world in Russia," he once said. "In Russia, when people go to a concert, they don't go to it as an attraction, as an entertainment, but to feel life."
The life force that was Rostropovich ceased exactly one month after his 80th birthday. On a day of mourning for all those who love music, the grief is felt acutely in Washington, where the exiled Rostropovich was the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994.
Even had he never picked up a baton, Rostropovich would still be remembered as one of the great musicians of the 20th century -- a noble and impassioned cellist whose stated intention was to combine the qualities he most admired in his famous predecessors: "sound from [Gregor] Piatigorsky, ideas and personality from [Pablo] Casals, feeling and beauty from [Pierre] Fournier." He was an unabashed Romantic who played with a full, burnished tone, effusive emotionalism and a virtuosic command of the instrument.
Moreover, he was a bold proponent of contemporary music. In addition to the works created for him by Soviet composers such as Serge Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Reinhold Gliere and Aram Khachaturian, Rostropovich had pieces dedicated to him by Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, Henri Dutilleux and Benjamin Britten. Indeed, the cellist is credited with reawakening Britten's interest in instrumental music after a long period of mostly vocal composition. Britten works created especially for Rostropovich include three suites for unaccompanied cello, a sonata for cello and piano, and a symphony for cello and orchestra. It is a huge gift to the cello repertory -- and to 20th-century music.
Yet Rostropovich had always wanted to conduct. "It was my first dream," he said. "If I play cello or piano, I make sound through instruments, but this instrument is not alive. A conductor must make a very deep connection, not with instruments but with people. He must use not only the baton but also eyes, expression and, most important, his musical personality."
Rostropovich made his American conducting debut with the NSO in March 1975. Three weeks later, he was selected as the orchestra's fourth music director -- which came as a distinct and unpleasant shock to its third music director, Antal Dorati, who was informed of the board's decision immediately before he was scheduled to lead a matinee concert featuring Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." By all accounts, Dorati had improved the orchestra enormously after he took it over in 1970, and the Hungarian conductor had planned to stay until 1980.
Instead, Rostropovich began his music directorship a little more than two years later, at the beginning of the 1977-1978 season. According to Ted Libbey's authoritative history of the NSO, Rostropovich's "stellar reputation called attention to the orchestra wherever it played -- not just in Washington but all over the world. Audiences were captivated. Critics found themselves reaching for the sort of romantic imagery usually reserved for fiction. He was a knight in shining armor, riding out of Russia to 'glory' (which is what his nickname 'Slava' means in Russian). He was the passionate suitor, arriving unexpectedly, sweeping the orchestra and its public off their feet and then -- to the surprise of many -- staying for the long haul."
It didn't hurt that Rostropovich the man was as warm and generous as his artistry. It was not unusual for him to leap from his conductor's podium after a particularly satisfying interpretation and hug and kiss every musician within reach. He was a shameless, irrepressible flirt, and a connoisseur of fine food and drink, a man who gulped vodka in much the same way -- and with much the same enthusiasm -- that a professional athlete might gulp Gatorade. He was good copy for anybody who wanted to write about him: Time Magazine put Rostropovich on its cover, calling him "The Magnificent Maestro."
He was also a figure of considerable moral stature. While he was still a student, his mentors Serge Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were condemned by Soviet authorities for adhering to "formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies, which are alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes." (This line -- a mixture of ersatz populist idealism and vicious personal attack -- could stand as the perfect template for Stalinist criticism.) Prokofiev knuckled under; Shostakovich, who had been one of Rostropovich's teachers, was dismissed from the Moscow Conservatory. "For two years, not one piece by them was played in my country," Rostropovich said in 1977. "But I did not change my professors like the other students."
As one consequence of the liberalization that followed the death of Stalin, Soviet artists were able to undertake concert tours of the West. Rostropovich made his London debut in March 1956, and his American debut the following month, at Carnegie Hall. Recordings helped to further his fame (he would eventually record virtually all of the standard cello repertory). During the late 1950's and the 1960's, Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, pursued highly successful careers. They lived in a grand apartment in Moscow and at their dacha in the village of Zhukovka outside the capital.
Yet at the turn of the 1970s, Rostropovich proved himself a man who was willing to put principle and friendship ahead of his celebrity and privilege -- one of the few real heroes in the Cold War. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a leading dissident, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1970, official attacks on the author and his already-controversial books increased until Rostropovich decided to mount a formal public protest. .