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Mstislav Rostropovich, "The Magnificent Maestro" of the NSO

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
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. .

"This was the greatest step of my life -- the greatest!" he recalled. "With my whole soul, I said 'now I will not be silent!' " He addressed his letter to four Soviet papers, all of which refused to publish it -- an eventuality that Rostropovich had foreseen and surmounted by leaking copies to Western journalists.

"Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?" the letter read, in part. "Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and express his opinion about what he knows, what he has personally thought about and experienced, and not merely to express with slightly different variations the opinion which has been inculcated in him."

Solzhenitsyn was exiled shortly thereafter, but Rostropovich and his wifewere chastened in a different manner. Their professional engagements dwindled, and their recordings were no longer played on the State radio. When Rostropovich performed with the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, only Richter's name appeared in the reviews.

Still, if Rostropovich was treated as a "nonperson" by the Kremlin, he became a hero to Soviet intellectuals. When he played a concert at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in early 1971, he was greeted ecstatically. "The audience rises and applauds for 10 minutes in one of the few Moscow political demonstrations that cannot be punished," Susan Jacoby wrote in The New York Times Magazine. "Who can take down the names of everyone at the concert? Who is to say the audience is not simply paying tribute to a great musician?"

In May 1974, the Rostropovichs were permitted to leave on a two-year visa. They would not return until 1990, when the NSO made a triumphant debut in the last days of the liberalized Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Three years later, the NSO returned and played the first-ever orchestral concert in Red Square. After the fall of communism, Rostropovich's relations with his native country grew markedly warmer; Russian president Vladimir Putin visited him in the hospital in February and toasted him at an emotional 80th birthday celebration at the Kremlin last month.

I met Rostropovich in 1982, when I was sent to write about him for the Saturday Review. His time was already booked through 1984, it was three days before the NSO was scheduled to leave on a European tour, and the morning rehearsal had gone on too long, putting him a precious hour behind. Yet he greeted me with a hearty bear hug and betrayed not a trace of impatience during the course of our interview. He understood English, but generally answered in Russian, translated by an interpreter.

In the latter part of his career, the number of Rostropovich's conducting appearances just about equaled his performances as a cellist. He was generally considered a mercurial, passionately enthusiastic orchestra leader, always at his best in Russian music. Indeed, he was probably the closest thing we had to a grand, shamanistic maestro in the tradition of Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Like those legendary conductors of yore, Rostropovich was never mistaken for a flawless technician. Nor did Rostropovich especially care. "There is too much emphasis on technical perfection nowadays, and not enough on what music is actually about -- irony, joy, human suffering, love," he told me.

I had mixed reactions to his conducting. It seemed to me that his performances of the standard repertory could be downright awful -- sloppy and unbridled and seemingly purely impulsive. And yet, when he was inspired, he summoned such eager and electrical playing from his forces that he banished all doubt. At such moments, the NSO musicians seemed happy to respond to Rostropovich's perpetually rudimental stick technique (up and down and down and up) and they gave him more music than they gave to many other, more polished maestros.

And rightly so, for Rostropovich's tumultuous, urgent and ecstatic artistry seemed a virtual embodiment of the great line from Walt Whitman: "I am the man, I suffered, I was there." Let us be glad that we, too, could be there to listen.

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