"Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms wrote concertos for the violin, but none of them wrote them for the cello, which was only a poor relative then," Mstislav Rostropovich said in an interview Wednesday at the French Embassy.
One of the world's great cellists, as well as a pianist, composer and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994, Rostropovich was in Washington as the chief juror for three days of performances that will determine which players will go to the eighth Rostropovich International Cello Competition in November in Paris.
The competition was originally organized in France in 1977 by friends of the cellist, a native of Azerbaijan who left the Soviet Union in 1974 after a political falling-out over his support of anti-Stalinist writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Thirty-two young cellists from 11 countries assembled at the embassy Tuesday, Wednesday and yesterday. Earlier this summer, cellists had individual preliminary auditions to win a place in this week's event. Each of Wednesday's 13 cellists, who ranged in age from 14 to 32, played two of the works required for the competition: movements from Johann Sebastian Bach's six unaccompanied suites (a staple of the cello repertoire) and 20th-century compositions. The Washington contestants chose solo sonatas by George Crumb, Gyorgy Ligeti, Benjamin Britten or Paul Hindemith.
"Unlike two and three centuries ago, the contemporary cello repertoire is rich and wonderful," Rostropovich said. "This new music is the key to attracting aspiring young talents to the cello and assuring its future." (Rostropovich's artistry has stirred many modern composers to write music specifically for him.)
The countries represented by this week's contestants clearly indicated the international scope of the Rostropovich Competition. Besides a sizable contingent of American players, the cellists came from 10 other countries: one each from Chile, Spain, Romania, Bulgaria and Taiwan; two each from Germany, France, Canada and South Korea; and three from China.
"American music education is very good now," Rostropovich said, "but there are more fine instrumentalists in this country than there are available positions in American symphony orchestras." At one NSO audition that he supervised during his Washington years, he noted, "a hundred good players competed for only one position."
Judging from the competitors heard just on Wednesday, one could say that Rostropovich and his fellow jurors have some difficult decisions to make. The winners will be announced next month.