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Slava's Triumph


Mstislav Rostropovich breezed through town over the weekend in what is for him a typically whirlwind fashion. This was the if-it's-Saturday-it-must-be-Baltimore leg of a concert schedule that will have him in a dozen countries and two hemispheres before December.

It's a schedule the 73-year-old Russian-born cellist seems downright proud of, pulling a copy of his itinerary from his suit pocket after settling into a couch in the cozy alcove of a hotel lobby.

From Baltimore, it's off to Japan and China ("It's my first visit - I was so against communism that I wouldn't go there before, but I think China has changed very much"). Next up: Kuala Lampur, Rome, Brussels, Moscow ("Only half a day - to receive a presentation with Seiji Ozawa for a concert we did last February to raise money for refugees from Chechnya"), Baku ("Where I was born - each year I give a concert and a master class there"), Copenhagen (a birthday concert for the Danish queen), Paris, London, Milan, Munich, Dijon, Paris again, Basel, London again.

And that's just through November.

"I stay busy like that right until 2004," Rostropovich says in his soft-grained Russian accent. Chances are, 2005 and beyond will be the same, if he has his way. "I promised myself I would make no vacation - until the big vacation," he says, breaking into his broad, trademark smile and gesturing with his ever-fluid hands to the sky, "when God tells me to stop and maybe takes me away in some cloud."

Rostropovich - universally known by a Russian diminutive for his first name, "Slava" - has lost none of the charm and humbleness, not to mention energy, that, decades ago, made him the world's best known, best loved cellist since Pablo Casals. He hasn't lost touch with his friends, either, among them the new music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"I could not perform with my very dear friend Yuri Temirkanov at his 60th birthday a few years ago," he says, "but I promised him I would come to Baltimore and make something good for him, a charity concert for him and his orchestra."

That concert on Saturday evening, the BSO's annual fundraising gala (it netted about $600,000), was aptly billed as "An Evening in Old St. Petersburg," where both Temirkanov and Rostropovich have homes. The crowd at the regally festooned Meyerhoff Symphony Hall heard the orchestra play chestnuts by Tchaikovsky and a sexy arrangement of Albeniz's "Tango" in lush, dynamic form.

Temirkanov and the ensemble also gave supple support to Rostropovich in Tchaikovsky's "Rococo Variations." The cellist, who donated his fee, gave a vintage Rostropovich performance - big, dark, penetrating tone; deep-felt phrasing, particularly in the slow, most lyrical passages.

An occasional rough edge never distracted from the intense musicality at work, the distinctive style that first earned him international fame in the 1950s and the admiration of the world's leading composers. Over the decades, more than 170 pieces have been composed specifically for him by the likes of Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and Henri Dutilleux. Rostropovich has recorded many of those scores, as well as most of the standard cello repertoire.

And, since the 1960s, he has enjoyed a second career as conductor. He was music director of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years - "One of the best periods of my life," he says - and has been on the podiums of major orchestras and opera houses all across the globe.

Back in 1977, when he started that National Symphony tenure, it seemed as if Rostropovich would never again have a chance to perform in his native country. It was still the Soviet Union then, and he was one of the government's staunchest critics. Having incurred official wrath by welcoming into his Moscow home Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Rostropovich and his wife, celebrated soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, found their careers cruelly suppressed in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"I am always doing things that are not logical," Rostropovich says, "like when Solzhenitsyn came to my house. But it seemed like a voice said to me, 'Slava, you must help him.' After that, my wife and I lost our Soviet citizenship. It was a tragedy, but it would have been a greater tragedy not to help another human being."

In the heady days of perestroika, Rostropovich's citizenship was restored in 1990. Although he makes his principal residence in Paris, it's clear he will always be a Russian. He speaks of his country with a mixture of optimism and concern. "The Russian people were so destroyed for near to 80 years. Communism destroyed Russian humanity, Russian personality completely. But I believe very, very much in a good future. I tell you honestly I have support for Putin. He must make order in the country."

Rostropovich saw his own freedom of expression repeatedly challenged under the Soviets, even after winning both the Lenin and Stalin prizes, among the country's highest honors. But, surprisingly, recent reports of the Putin government's crackdowns on criticism do not seem to worry Rostropovich.

"If a journalist [jay-walks] across the street and a policeman gives him a penalty," he says, "that is not against freedom of the press. I am sure we are coming to a good democracy in Russia. But the people are not ready for [American] kind of democracy. There have to be rules, and the rules have to be for everybody. There is corruption and more corruption now."

Any mention of Russia invariably leads to discussion of one of Rostropovich's greatest friends, Shostakovich. Since the publication two decades ago of Solomon Volkov's "Testimony," which he claimed were Shostakovich's memoirs and contained much anti-Soviet sentiment, a debate has raged about their authenticity. That debate just got hot again this summer when the composer's widow, Irina, published an emphatic article debunking Volkov's work.

Rostropovich weighs in on the side of the widow.

"We must trust her," the cellist says. "She was all the time with Shostakovich. Volkov spoke with many people around Shostakovich. Some of what he wrote was true, but it was not from Shostakovich. And Shostakovich sometimes at the table would say things he didn't completely agree with himself. Maybe it was the vodka.

"Volkov says that Shostakovich didn't like the music of Prokofiev. That's a lie. I know how Shostakovich admired Prokofiev's work."

Rostropovich takes a kinder view than some do of the infamous documents Shostakovich signed criticizing certain composers, among them Stravinsky, or Soviet dissidents.

"It was his mistake to sign those things," Rostropovich says. "Once when we were sitting together, I asked, him, 'Tell me honestly why you sometimes sign such letters.' He said that when he was given them, he immediately became very nervous that the government would stop him from his work.

"You must remember his music was once completely forbidden in Russia and he had no money for food. He did not want that to happen again. So he would sign, but he told me, 'I sign them upside down. And I'm sure that from my music people will understand much more about me than from these ... letters.' Shostakovich was a complicated, deep and sensitive personality."

The same could well be said of Rostropovich.

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