MSTISLAV Rostropovich's press conference 12 days ago, his first as music director-elect of the National Symphony Orchestra, was filled with exciting announcements and prospects of more to come. It also presented details of the programs proposed for the orchestra's coming season, programs that are, on the whole, seriously disappointing.
This seems a good time to consider some of the Rostropovich suggestions and to take a close look at the programs he is offering for the coming season.
The conductors who wil appear here during the first full Rostropovich season give the orchestra unusual strengths in its guest leaders: Seiji Ozama and Stanislaw Skrowaczewski of the Boston and Minnesota orchestras, Aaron Copland, Antal Dorati - who returns as principal guest conductor - and James DePreist, all of well-established prowess, and, meeting the Rostropovich requirements for young American conductors, John Mauceri and James Conlon, both of whom are marked for future stardom by present achievements.
The list of guest soloists is also said if ultra-familiar: Rudolf Serkin, Issac Stern, Claudio Arrau, Pinchas Zukerman, Lili Kraus, Alicia de Larrocha, Janos Starker and Galina Vishnevskaya are all greatly admired. Less familiar, but with high reputations, are cellists Aurora Ginastera - the composer's second wife - and singers Anna Reynolds, Seth McCoy, Florence Quivar and Linda Zoghby. New names are those of the Russians, pianist Elizo Virzaladze and cellist Natalia Schachovskaya, whom Rostropovich describes as "the finest young performers on their instruments in Russia today."
It is also good that Rostropovich wishes to continue a policy the National Symphony has often practiced well, that of giving young American soloists special chances in the spotlight. One entire program will be occupied by a violinist, cellist and pianist in their major orchestral debuts.
The real shock in the Rostropovich announcement came in the programs that he and his guest conductors are planning to perform. They are so extremely conservative as to be almost unbelievable. Out of the 24 programs on the major subscription series, 23 have been announced. Three of these may be called moderately conservative, while one, to be led by Aaron Copland, is excellent, if very middle-of-the-road in terms of public acceptance. The others put the National Symphony Orchestra far to the right of programs now being regularly played by the orchestras of Boston, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, to citecities to which the National Symphony wishes to be compared.
Some examples of this extreme conservatism: the opening concert, Oct. 4 - Weber, "Oberon" Overture; Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4; Dvorak Symphony No. 7. Two weeks later - Brahms Symphony No. 2; Tchaikovsky Manfred Symphony. The following week - Schumann Manfred Overture, Schumann Second Symphony, Prokofiev "Alexander Nevesky."
The second concert, between these two, is, to be sure, an all-Bernstein evening that will include the world premiere of Bernstein's new song symphony, "An American Songfest." This music, which is likely to follow the composer's moderate style, is probably not going to be in any way "extreme." That is fine with me. The program will also include the world premiere of a Bernstein overture.
Nov. 3 will offer Mozart, Wagner, Ives - the Three Places in New England - and Debussy. Nov. 29: Brahms and Beethoven! Dec. 13: Berlioz, Bartok, Brahms. The program in which Rostropovich will introduce three young American soloists is an appalling mixture: concertos by Saint-Saens, Wieniawski, Liszt and the Beethoven "Triple." Jan. 3: Mozart and Mahler No. 1.Jan. 17: Dvorak and Mussorgsky. Feb. 7: another Beethoven and Brahms! April 18: Mozart and Bruckner. This one, by the way, suggests occupying the talents of Lili Kraus only at one of the three keyboards in Mozart's three-piano concerto. April 25 is to be Beethoven and Schubert.
True, on Jan. 25 symphonies by Mozart and Tchaikovsky will be separated by the Ginastera Cello Concerto; and May 2 will find the Dorati Cello Concerto dividing Haydn from Brahms. The Verdi Requiem for Feb. 14 and the Mahler Second Symphony for March, 21 are of course always welcome. But the majority of these are not programs expected from the man who last year won the Ernst von Siemens Foundation music prize given to "a vehemently exemplary advocate of contemporary music." These programs are steps backward not only from the distinguished programs to which Antal Dorati accustomed NSO subscribers, but from an acceptable level of symphony programs for a Washington audience today.
It is far from too late for Rostropovich to reconsider both his own programs and those his guests have proposed. This is no plea for avant garde music nor for any outburst of brand new music. But it is an urgent argument that as next season's National Symphony programs now stand, they are not appropriate for that organization or its subscribers or the great musician who is to lead it.
Among the surprising announcements made at the recent press conference was the statement that for the coming season the National Symphony would have no resident or associate conductor. In explaining this departure from a custom of many years, Rostropovich said quite reasonably that he wants to hear several talented young American conductors. Fine their number is large. He also said something which, while completely laudable, is inextricably tied up with this tough problem of a resident conductor. He said, "All concerts by the National Symphony, children's concerts, summer programs, all of these must be of a very high quality. If one concert comes out not of this quality, it has an effect." He is, of course, absolutely right.
At present, the National Symphony plays many children's concerts, as it should and must. Some of these are played on what is called a back-to-back basis, meaning two a morning or afternoon. It is not an easy matter to find a conductor who can and will take on the onerous duty of directing these programs in which orchestral morale is a problem, repetition inevitable and rehearsal time sometimes painfully short. Beyond these considerations is the challenge of making them interesting to youthful audiences, something that requires a special talent many conductors completely lack.
Murry Sidlin, who is said to have plans for his immediate future that do not include the NSO, has been conducting these concerts for several years. A first-rate replacement for him will take special work, money and time if Rostropovich's call for high quality is to be achieved. If it can be, the orchestra and its audiences will benefit.
Last Sunday morning The New York Times hailed Rostropovich and the National Symphony as likely to produce the kind of "hysterical adulation" created by the Chicago Symphony and Sir Georg Solti. Who in Washington would have dreamed such a thing even a few years ago? Antal Dorati made it possible. Mstislav Rostropovich may well make it happen. It must not be accompanied by backward steps in programming. Such a move would be contrary to one of the essential elements in the program through which Dorati brought the NSO its new distinction.