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Rostropovich Remembered
World-Class Cellist and Washington Icon Dies in Russia

Tim Page
Chief Classical Music Critic, The Washington Post
Friday, April 27, 2007 12:00 PM

Even had he never picked up a baton, Mstislav Rostropovich, who died today at the age of 80, would still be remembered as both a hero in the fight against Soviet repression and one of the great musicians of the 20th century -- a noble and impassioned cellist who played with a full, burnished tone, effusive emotionalism and a virtuosic command of the instrument. But he will be especially missed in Washington, where he served as the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994.

Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning chief classical music critic of The Washington Post, will be online Friday, April 27, at Noon ET to discuss the life and work of the world-class cellist and Washington icon.

A transcript follows.

Photo Gallery: The 'Magnificent Maestro' of the NSO

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Tim Page: Good afternoon and welcome to another on-line chat courtesy of the Washington Post and WPNI.

It is a sad day for those of us who love music, for Mstislav Rostropovich, supreme cellist and the msuic director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994, has died in Moscow.

Over the next hour, I will welcome memories, reflections, critiques of this very great musician. Please join in.

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Dayton, Ohio: Interesting connections this week in the obits. I saw Rostropovich conduct and play in Red Square to a packed crowd in 1993, just before Yeltsin and the Russian parliament started shooting at each other. That cello certainly got around, didn't it?

Tim Page: It certainly did. An amazing life, an amazing artist, an amazing man.

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Another Reason to Treasure Slava: One of my favorite memories of living in Washington came about one night after an NSO concert at the U.S. Capitol; there was recorded music to go with fireworks afterwards, and suddenly here comes Mstislav Rostropovich leading a conga line of musicians through the crowd doing 'the bunny hop.'

Tim Page: What a terrific memory! It's nice to have some of these images of "Slava" the man, as well as Slava the musician.

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Fairfax, Va.: What do you make of his shameful endorsement of Putin?

Tim Page: At least he never claimed to look into Putin's eyes and "see his soul," as He Who Shall Not Be Named once did.

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Washington, D.C.: Here's a curious fact: it was Leonard Slatkin, not Rostropovich the one who gave the NSO premiere of Shostakovich' last symphony!

Tim Page: That IS interesting. Slatkin was always interested in contemporary music and I'll bet it was a strong performance.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Hi Tim,

Good to have you participating in a chat again, albeit under these sad circumstances. I have only known the work of Rostropovich work through recordings and am a great admirer of him as a cellist, but have never found his work as a conductor to be especially noteworthy. I have liked his Tchaikovsky recordings (Pique Dame, the symphonies), but found him lacking when conducting other repertoire with which I expected him to have a great affinity (Prokofiev, Shostakovich). Perhaps it was the complexity of the more modern scores that was problematic. Do you have any memorable experiences of Slava as a conductor in Washington or elsewhere?

Tim Page: I generally share your opinion of Rostropovich's conducting. That said, when he was ON -- as he usually was in Russian music -- the results could be thrilling. There's still no better recording of "Boris Godonov."

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Beautiful Silver Spring, Md.: Howdy Tim. It's a sad day today when Rostropovich has passed on, but we have a lot of recordings to remember him with. (Though now I really regret passing on seeing him conduct the NSO last year with Dawn Upshaw.) However, I think Rostropovich's most amazing legacy as an artist was all the wonderful works he inspired in composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten. Off the top of my head, I think you'd have to go back to Joachim to find a performer involved in the creation of as many works that have become part of the standard repertoire. Do you see anyone nowadays picking up where Rostropovich left off in that regard?

Tim Page: A good point, and I'd have to try to think of anybody who has been so important for the repertory. Maybe one of the string quartets -- Kronos or Balanescu -- although much of the music is not on the same level. Rostropovich had real taste in contemporary composers.

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Astoria, N.Y.: One of my enduring memories is from the 1970s. Slava came into the Hurok office, his arms full of champagne bottles, his English almost non-existent, and ushered everyone (including this gofer) into Mr. Hurok's office, to drink a toast with great affection and cheer to Solzhenitsyn on his birthday. His was an extraordinary soul.

Tim Page: What a wonderful vignette! Thank you.

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Fairfax, Va.: Why does everything has to do with "He Who Shall Not Be Named"? Can we just talk about the issue? I mean after Rostropovich was so curageous with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Solzhenitsyn, the fact that he was allowed to be taken as Putin's puppy was a major disappointment.

Tim Page: I think he was old, saw Putin as restoring Russian (as opposed to Soviet) pride, and may not have had the same perspective about what was going on in his native land that we do over here. Also, when you compare Putin to virtually any Russian leader between Czar Nicholas and Mikhail Gorbachev, he's far from the worst.

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Fairfax, Va.: Re: Boris Godunov: the Golovanov/Reizen recording, sound apart, is miles ahead of Rostropovich. Sorry.

Tim Page: That IS a fine recording. I'd still go with Rostropovich.

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Arlington, Va.: As a very amateur musician (one who plays violin only in my house!) I find it interesting that someone from the classical genre transcended into the rest of the music world. Most people never know of classical musicians, thinking the whole thing very stuff and all that, yet he was both high culture and pop culture. Is there any word on what will happen to his instruments and such? Will the Smithsonian get anything or the equivalent museum in Russia get them?

Tim Page: I would hope that his instruments would be passed on to another brilliant young cellist. Better to have them played than behind glass in a museum.

I will except the wonderful cello of Ennio Bolognini which had the names of most of the great musicians of the mid-20th century carved into it and is now at the Smithsonian.

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Toronto, Canada: I am a violist with the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra. I had the wonderful opportunity to see Rostropovich perform live on three occasions, including the world premiere of the 3rd unaccompanied suite of Britten. I know of no other musician who has had a more profound or meaningful impact in this or any other century.

Tim Page: Thank you for your comment. I tend to honor composers above interpreters but certainly can think of few performers who have made such an impression on music. A whole new repertory came into being thanks to Rostropovich's advocacy.

And isn't the third suite wonderful? That last movement is like nothing else Britten wrote.

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Tim Page: Oh come on, folks! This is SLAVA, the man who was at the helm of the National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years. This is one of the great heroes of the Cold War. I can't believe we don't have some more memories to share with each other on this rainy day.

Tell us your thoughts.

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Long time Washington Music Lover: Rostropovich was always Russian. If the cost of being at home at the end of his life was being nice to Putin, then so be it. We have benefited from his love of life in Washington. We have no way to know how much he missed Moscow. Unless you have been an exile, facing never to return or to be known at home for many years, as he was, we cannot judge his decisions near the end.

Tim Page: I am inclined to think Rostropovich deserves a pass here, too.

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Arlington, Va.: Apparently I have a higher opinion than some of Rostropovich's talents as a conductor. Technical finish was never his strong suit, but, also, it was not something he (or I) particularly value. That said, his recordings as a cellist certainly are his greatest legacy. He must have recorded Prokofiev's Symphony-Concerto at least a half dozen times. For my money, his greatest recording of that -- the 1956 version recorded in London with Sir Malcolm Sargent -- was just recently re-released on EMI in their 'Great Recordings of the Century Series,' coupled with the lovely cello concerto of Prokofiev's friend Miaskovsky. I know you're no great Prokofiev fan, but what are your thoughts about that recording, the Symphony-Concerto, and MR's great collaborative friendships with Prokofiev and Shostakovich?

Tim Page: He was marvelous in that music. But I especially love his recording of the Shostakovich Cello Sonata, with that unbelievably beautiful theme in the first movement. I have chills just thinking about it.

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Burke, Va.: In its online tribute, The NSO Mourns the Loss of Conductor Laureate Mstislav Rostropovich ( NSO, April 27)), the NSO speaks about a few of the world premieres that he gave: The Polish Requiem (Penderecki), Symphony No. 6 (Schnittke), Novelette (Lutoslawski), and Timbres, Espace, Mouvement (Dutilleux). Many have entered been widely executed since. Apart from Bernstein, are you aware of his championship of other American composers?

Tim Page: Not offhand. Can anybody refresh the collective memory?

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Downtown D.C.: Maybe his instruments could "tour" at different museums, but be played by people like Yo-Yo Ma, Sophie-Anne Mutter, Joshua Bell and the like as part of the so-called exhibit. The artists could also dish about any memories they have of him.

Tim Page: That's an interesting idea. It is important to play great instruments -- not only because they should be heard but because it is good for the instruments themselves.

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Vienna, Va.: Slava did a lot for the National Symphony through being such a star, such a character. His baton lacked the polish of many much duller conductors. I'll take that tradeoff any day.

A former NSO musician who had previously played with the Boston Symphony told me, "Overall the BSO is a better orchestra, but when the NSO is 'on,' especially with Slava conducting, there is no comparison. The NSO is a much more exciting orchestra to play in."

Tim Page: My late and wonderful friend, Joseph McLellan, who wrote for this newspaper for 35 years or thereabouts, called Rostropovich's performances of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony the most exciting musical events he ever heard in Washington.

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Vienna, Va.: What music do you suggest Slava's fans play in his memory this week? My own pick is the finale to Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Slava's interpretation is unique.

Tim Page: That would make sense to me. And it would make Joe McLellan happy, too, wherever he is.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Speaking of the Third Britten sonata, I was surprised to hear from the previous post that Rostropovich, its dedicatee, did perform it. I know he never recorded it. Do you know how often he performed the piece? My understanding was that he would not record it after the death of the composer.

Tim Page: I know nothing about this. It's too bad he never recorded it, for I prefer it to the first two sonatas. Why would he have waited for Britten's death? And even if he did, Rostropovich continued playing cello until the 21st century and Britten died in 1976.

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Rockville, Md.: Do you think there is a danger of limiting him just to Russian music?

Tim Page: I would welcome hearing about first class performances by Rostropovich outside the Russian repertory. I know he was very fond of -- and very responsive to -- the work of Henri Dutilleux.

Again, I solicit your thoughts out there in cyber-space land. This is your forum.

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St. Louis, Mo.: The young, and amazing, principal cello of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra was a student of Slava's. Can you speak of Rostropovich's influence as a teacher?

Tim Page: I would be delighted to hear from some of his students.

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Sun Prairie, Wisc.: I moved to Washington in the early 1980s, several years after Rostropovich took over the NSO. People who lived there before that time may have a clearer perspective on the difference he made. At the time I and many others tended, I think, to take for granted that Washington had a quality orchestra, something for which Rostropovich was largely responsible.

He was a remarkable musician, but he was also a real trooper. Conducting the July 4th concert on the Mall, often in suffocating heat and humidity, in front of thousands of people waiting for the fireworks must have been ... challenging for a classical cellist. Those NSO concerts, middlebrow though they may have been, were still among the most enjoyable I can remember.

Tim Page: Thank you! I think Antal Dorati had a lot to do with the building of the NSO. But there can be no doubt that Rostropovich brought in a new and eager audience.

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Los Angeles: In May 2001, I saw him conduct the Maggio Fiorentino Festival Orchestra in Tchaikovsky 5 and Shostakovich 5. The Tchaikovsky was brilliant, the Shostakovich excellent as well. But I really got what I came for when Slava went backstage after the 3rd ovation, rummaged around, and brought out his cello. He played three movements from the unaccompanied Bach suites (I'm sad to say that I don't know them well enough to say which). The final movement was a Sarabande, I believe, and when he finished the entire crowd sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity, just letting the final notes hang in the air. Then thunderous applause. As an amateur cellist, that was one of the greatest musical nights of my life. What a loss.

Tim Page: Yes. During my year at the St. Louis Symphony (I served as artistic advisor from 1999 to 2000) Rostropovich opened our season, with (I think) one of the Shostakovich concertos. But the most amazing moment of the evening was the encore, when he stepped out and played one movement of Bach. "Now I can die happy," somebody whispered in the row behind me.

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Washington, D.C.: Will there be a public memorial event for the Maestro?

Tim Page: According to the National Symphony Orchestra, plans for a memorial concert are in progress and will be announced at a later date.

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NSO Season Ticket Holder during Slava's TIme: My memory of Rostropovich was the time I waited in a long line to get his autograph on a record at the interval. He stayed until the line finished, the interval was longer than expected, and he signed more LPs than I think he expected. I treasure that LP, and did before today. He could have timed his availability and disappointed those at the end of the line, but he didn't. He was a nice man.

Tim Page: He was a real gentleman, wasn't he? A really wonderful man.

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A poignant story: Here's something that Ioan Holender, the intendant of the Vienna State Opera relates in his memories:

When, at the request of the composer, Holender hired Rostropovich to conduct the world premiere of Schnittke's "Gesualdo", they had a talk in his office about his plans for the State Opera. Holender told him among other things about his intention to stage Britten's Peter Grimes for the first time at the Staatsoper. When he heard that, Rostropovich jumped like a kid and begged: "Ioanichka, please, I want to do that. I promised Ben!"

Holender was of course happy to give the Peter Grimes premiere to Rostropovich. In their office, they ended their concersation with an old Cold War Slogan, ironically and jokingly of course: "Traiasca prietenia romano-sovietica" (long live the Romanian-Soviet friendhsip, Holender, the longest serving intendant being born in Romania.)

Tim Page: Thanks so much. That is a lovely story.

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Washington, D.C.: One of the most thrilling concerts I've ever seen was Rostropovich conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th with Boston at Tanglewood (I was inside). This was in the late 90s or early 00s.

Tim Page: He really understood Russian music to the depths of his soul. I'll bet the performance sounded pretty fine out on the lawn, too.

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New York, N.Y.: I think it should be pointed out that Rostropovich was a 'complete' musician. Not only was he a sublime cellist and a fine conductor, not only did he commission and championed music from composers of very different stripes, but he was a pretty decent pianist, too, and accompanied his wife in recital.

When he conducted the New York Philharmonic a few seasons ago, the strings (who can often seem un-engaged when they play) were all on the edges of their seats.

Another thing is that not only did he commission new works, but he kept on conducting and playing them, trying his best to usher them into the standard repertory.

Tim Page: Absolutely. He not only played premieres -- which carry with them a certain newsy cachet -- but played second and third performances, too, which are a lot harder to obtain for many composers.

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Just a comment: I first moved to D.C. for college the same year Slava took over the NSO. NSO concerts were my first by a professional orchestra. For me, Slava and the NSO will forever be joined. He may not have been the best conductor but his love of music and performing was obvious. I always did wonder what the cello section of the NSO thought about playing for one of the best cellists in the world.

Tim Page: Yes -- I think if I'd been a cellist, I would have been pretty intimidated. It would be like singing in a chorus for Placido Domingo.

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Fairfax, Va.: I attended the performance of The Polish Requiem by Penderecki that was mentioned earlier. I was so moved that I could leave the Concert Hall. I lingered for quite awhile and was literally the last to leave. I thought the ushers were going to throw me out! Thanks, Maestro, and peace.

Tim Page: I think you meant that you "couldn't" leave the Concert Hall! The hope of that sort of emotional response to great music is what keeps us going, isn't it?

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Fairfax, Va.: Since I only saw him in the last few years, are there indication of what his repertoire was like? Apart from Russian music, of course? How about Mahler, Bruckner, etc.

Tim Page: He conducted music from many different genres. I don't know about Mahler and Bruckner, but can't imagine that he didn't lead their works a few times at least. I doubt that there were many composers he didn't conduct at some point -- certainly Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and the standard repertory.

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Alexandria. Va.: First off, it is so good to see you with an online chat again -- you are missed.

My favorite Rostropovich memory was his enthusiasm. I subscribed to the NSO when he was music director, and you could set your watch by him -- he always came out on stage at precisely the scheduled concert time. And he never walked, he BOUNCED. He obviously loved what he was doing. And even when his conducting wasn't that effective, the audience loved what he was doing.

Tim Page: Thank you. I loved doing these chats and was sorry when they were taken off.

Rostropovich was a great man and musician, and will be very much missed. He was that rarest of things -- a FORCE -- and I am grateful that I was able to hear him as often as I did.

Thanks to all who joined us today.

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Bethesda, Md.: Speaking of repertoire, wouldn't be great if the NSO -- or all other orchestras for that matter -- would have an online database just like the Met does? The technology is out there and is not expensive, and yes, I am willing to volunteer for data entry.

Tim Page: It will be coming. Now that the Met has broken down the walls, all the other organizations will follow. It has to happen.

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Fairfax, Va.: Yes, Tim, it is the hope for such emotional response that keeps me going. I did meet him once. He was at the L.A. Airport. I went up and introduced myself and thanked him. He was not the least bit offended or stand-offish. We had a nice chat. I will now put the Bach cello suites by him and remember.

Tim Page: A great idea. And now I really must run. Thanks again for your participation.

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