MOSCOW — The applause began in the upper balcony of the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory and spread through the auditorium until the entire audience was clapping in rhythm, like a crowd at a sports stadium, speaking a universal language: Play us an encore.
The National Symphony Orchestra had just finished its first performance in Russia in nearly a quarter of a century. It arrived at a time when official relations between the United States and Russia are, to put it mildly, fraught. And it demonstrated that, at a time when political rhetoric is heated, music may be offering the real language of diplomacy, formalized and couched in centuries of tradition. Indeed, it wasn’t even clear whether people were clapping for what they had just heard or for what this visit represented.
Sometimes a concert is just a concert. And sometimes it dips its toe into the complex world of cultural diplomacy.
“Culture stands tall above the din of politics,” said John Tefft, the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, speaking at a reception for the NSO at his residence on Tuesday night.
The NSO played another concert in Moscow on Thursday and will perform one in St. Petersburg on Friday before flying home. And the reason for this lightning-quick trip isn’t actually diplomatic at all. The NSO has come to honor its late music director, Mstislav Rostropovich, at the annual festival that his daughter Olga created in his memory, on what would have been his 90th birthday.
Rostropovich, a brilliant cellist who took up conducting relatively late in life, led the NSO for 17 seasons, after he was exiled from the Soviet Union due to his support for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. When he returned in 1990 for the first time, he brought the NSO with him — and got a Beatles-style welcome, with people literally scaling the outer walls of the Moscow Conservatory’s Great Hall to look in through the high windows that run around the top. Then came the 1993 tour, when the orchestra became the first in history to perform in Red Square, to a crowd of 100,000 people — while across town, guns were trained on Moscow’s White House in a showdown between the president and the parliament.
The present tour comes at another critical historical moment. As both countries deal with the fallout from allegations that Russia interfered with the U.S. election, an American orchestra has come to Russia — still a relatively infrequent occurrence; the last big American orchestras to play here came in 2012 — to pay homage to a great Russian by playing a lot of Russian music.
On one level, these performances can be seen as an act of homage. The Russians are certainly noting the symbolic implications of an American orchestra coming to honor a Russian, playing literally under a banner emblazoned with Rostropovich’s portrait above the Conservatory stage. On Tuesday afternoon, after the Rostropovich Festival held a news conference with the NSO at the TASS news agency’s building here, Russian television — which is state-sponsored — ran a brief report that emphasized how important Rostropovich remains to the NSO today.
On another level, the NSO’s performances can be seen as a viable alternative to political diplomacy, showing people from different societies brought together by a common love. The tour could even be read as an act of subversion, by both sides. In the United States, the new administration is trying to stamp out the federal funding for the arts that used to make just this kind of cultural exchange possible. (The current tour is privately funded, in part by the state-supported Rostropovich Festival and in part by private donors.) As for Russia, where people around the country just took to the streets to protest government corruption: Rostropovich, an outspoken foe of totalitarian governments, might well have had a thing or two to say about the current Russian regime. Although, a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin stands on the first page of the Rostropovich Festival program book.
For diplomats on both sides, there’s a lot about this tour to love. “Culture,” said Tefft, the U.S. ambassador, “does things that traditional diplomacy can’t.”
Two weeks before the orchestra left, the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak — the man notable for his conversations with now-ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions — hosted a reception for the NSO and its patrons, similar to the one Tefft gave in Moscow, at the Russian Embassy in Washington.
“The tour,” Kislyak said, “is one of the brightest elements in our current relations.”
Trips such as these, says Nicholas J. Cull, the director of the master of public diplomacy program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, “have immense significance because of their symbolic nature.” They fulfill what he describes as some essential functions of cultural diplomacy. “Most basically,” Cull says, “there’s the idea of a gift. If you give somebody a fantastic gift it starts to establish a reciprocal relationship.” It also is a chance to “actually tell the recipient something about you they might not already know. . . . Maybe today there’s value in reminding people that we’re not all about Taylor Swift. There is still high culture in America. Despite people backing out of humanities funding.”
And, he adds, “It helps to show respect to a cultural figure of the country of origin.”
For many of the NSO’s players, diplomacy is of far less concern than doing honor to their beloved former music director. At the news conference at TASS, William Foster, a viola player with the orchestra for nearly 50 years, took Olga Rostropovich’s hand, saying he remembered her as a child, and was so overwhelmed with memories that he choked up. “I wasn’t looking forward to this tour,” he said later. “It wasn’t until we got here that I really realized what we were doing here.” Later on Tuesday afternoon, Steven Honigberg, one of many talented cellists whom Rostropovich drew to the NSO, gave a master class to young string players. Outreach is a buzzword for American orchestras, and this kind of exchange is a popular tool of cultural diplomacy as well, but that wasn’t what motivated Honigberg. “It’s the least I can do,” he said, “for the man who was so important in my life.”
Art doesn’t offer neat answers. Indeed, performing during times of crisis underlines the messy way that crisis plays out. When the NSO was here in 1993, Daniel Foster, William’s son and the orchestra’s current principal viola, felt a sense of irony at learning what was happening by watching CNN, from Atlanta, in his Moscow hotel room.
It would be nice to say that the NSO had a triumphant return. But the reality wasn’t so clear cut, as the orchestra faced the challenge of trying to live up to its own past glory, in a somewhat diminished present. Although there was brisk scalper activity around the ticket lines, the hall wasn’t quite sold out. And Eschenbach’s cerebral approach to musical emotion didn’t seem to fully connect with an audience primed for a more vital, Rostropovich-like approach. Eschenbach, like Rostropovich, is a soloist turned conductor, with lots of ideas about music and spotty conducting ability, but Rostropovich conducted with such commitment and energy that it was easy not to notice. “There was never a concert that was just tossed off,” said Alice Kogan Weinreb, a flutist with the NSO since 1979. “It always felt like a matter of life and death whenever we performed, no matter how big or small the venue.” Today, the NSO does not always communicate the same sense of urgency, though it sounded unusually full and warm in the beautiful acoustics of this iconic hall.
The tired truism that classical music is a universal language gets trotted out, like a dusty diplomatic ritual, for such occasions. If that were really true, it wouldn’t matter how well or badly any piece was played. And in fact, Wednesday’s concert got a little bit lost in translation: It was a concert pitched to Americans’ ideas about discriminating Russian listeners, but played to an audience that seemed eager for some of Rostropovich’s showmanship. With music, like diplomacy, it can take a while for the effects to sink in. When the last notes of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony died away, the applause seemed at first merely politely, then gradually built to that rhythmic, pounding clapping. We want to like music. And we want to like each other. That may be the most profound message, at the moment, that cultural diplomacy has to offer.