Famed musical dynamo found 'glory' in freedom

The Baltimore Sun

Mstislav Rostropovich, an astounding cellist, dynamic conductor and humanitarian of historic impact who defied Soviet authorities in his native Russia and championed personal and artistic freedom throughout the world, died yesterday in Moscow, one month after his 80th birthday. He had reportedly been battling intestinal cancer.

Mr. Rostropovich was one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, capable of coaxing from the instrument an endless array of colors and bringing to a wide-reaching repertoire an indelible level of expressive warmth. He also used his cello to make eloquent statements that went beyond the musical, as when, in 1989, he played solo Bach at the crumbling Berlin Wall.

As a conductor, his performances of the rich Russian repertoire, especially the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, likewise generated remarkable power.

He left a particularly strong mark on the cultural life of Washington, where he was music director of the National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years, beginning in 1977, when his presence was as much a political sensation as a musical one during the tense era of the Cold War.

Known universally as "Slava" - a diminutive of Mstislav that means "glory" in Russian - Mr. Rostropovich began to defy the Soviet government in the late 1960s.

When authorities cracked down on dissidents, singling out Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and other artists, Mr. Rostropovich voiced concerns in a letter made public in the West. He questioned "why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in these fields have the final word."

Mr. Rostropovich and his wife, stellar soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, famously gave shelter to Mr. Solzhenitsyn in their dacha outside Moscow. Later, while on an extended visit abroad, they were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.

"There are only a handful of artists who have influenced the musical landscape of the world," Leonard Slatkin, Mr. Rostropovich's successor as NSO music director, said in a statement.

"Slava's impact has been felt time and time again. Whether crusading on behalf of composers, other musicians or his fellow citizens, his personality always dictated what was fair and just," Mr. Slatkin said.

Ilya Finkelshteyn, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Russian-born principal cellist, praised Rostropovich's tenacity.

"He was so sure that what he was doing was right," Mr. Finkelshteyn said. "And because of him, the musical world - the world in general - is a better place."

Mr. Rostropovich regained his Soviet citizenship the next year and promptly took the NSO on a triumphant tour of his native country.

In 1991, he traveled to Moscow to join Boris Yeltsin, the first elected Russian president, and other reformers fighting off a coup attempt. Afterward, Mr. Yeltsin awarded Mr. Rostropovich the State Prize of Russia.

The former president was buried Wednesday in Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where Mr. Rostropovich will also be interred tomorrow, after a service at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Buried at that same site are two of Mr. Rostropovich's most influential friends and mentors, the great composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.

Russia's current president, Vladimir V. Putin, called Mr. Rostropovich's death "a tremendous loss for Russian culture."

In 1991, Mr. Rostropovich and his wife created a foundation in Russia to improve health care for children. More than 2 million youths were vaccinated as part of one foundation project.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, on March 27, 1927. Both of his parents were musicians. His mother began giving him piano lessons at age 4. At 8, he started studying the cello with this father.

Mr. Rostropovich made his debut at 13 in Ukraine and, three years later, entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Shostakovich. He also took composition lessons with Prokofiev before focusing all energies on playing the cello.

Shostakovich and Prokofiev wrote works specifically for Mr. Rostropovich, as did several other eminent composers over the years, among them Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein.

A U.S. debut in 1956 at Carnegie Hall and other appearances outside the Soviet Union earned Mr. Rostropovich wider fame. In 1968, he made his conducting debut, leading the Bolshoi Opera in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

Like many cellists, Mr. Finkelshteyn counts Mr. Rostropovich as a major influence. "He was my idol since I was growing up," he said. "His playing always had such passion and abandon."

So did Mr. Rostropvich's conducting. Those qualities did not always endear him to orchestra musicians or critics, who preferred more disciplined, less individualistic music-making.

"Slava wasn't perfect," said Lambert Orkis, a pianist and longtime NSO member who was Mr. Rostropovich's accompanist in numerous recitals around the world. "He could get mixed up in a score, but so could other conductors.

"He wanted to play us as he played the cello, with a real passion that could get to the heart of the music," Mr. Orkis said.

Although ecstatically greeted by orchestra and public alike when he started his tenure as NSO music director, Mr. Rostropovich gradually lost some support over the years.

"Maybe performances weren't as smooth as they could be," Mr. Orkis said, "but the music got across. I remember outdoor concerts the NSO did in Europe with 15,000 people screaming their lungs out, they were so excited. Now a lot of the naysayers about his conducting miss that excitement."

The NSO released a statement on behalf of the players praising Mr. Rostropovich as "an incomparable musician, an ardent spokesperson for human rights, and an extraordinary human being. The National Symphony has also lost a great leader, a caring mentor, and a beloved friend," the statement read.

Mr. Rostropovich was the first to admit that he had no formal training as a conductor. He said that playing cello for years with the world's best conductors was a valuable education in itself.

What he could achieve with a willing orchestra - and he regularly guest-conducted top ensembles everywhere - was an uncommon, indelible intensity. Several recordings, made with the NSO and other orchestras, attest to that power.

His cello recordings, from the standard repertoire of Bach, Brahms and Dvorak to remarkable 20th-century works, capture his technical mastery and remarkable personality.

That personality was just as big and compelling offstage. His bear hugs, bestowed on the willing and unsuspecting alike, were as famed as his fondness for jokes and hearty drinking.

"He had such a wonderful joy of life," Mr. Orkis said. "I never saw him drink before a concert, but after - I couldn't keep up with him. Once we shared an entire bottle of vodka, and that made him very happy. It was like an initiation ceremony."

Patricia O'Kelly, the NSO's managing director of media relations and occasional interpreter of Mr. Rostropovich's wonderfully piquant English during his music director years, recalled a typical example of the conductor's humor during one stop in the orchestra's monthlong residency in Louisiana.

"Slava looked at the name Baton Rouge, and said, 'I need red paint,'" Mr. O'Kelly said. "We found some red nail polish and he painted his baton with it. He didn't let anyone see it until he gave the downbeat that night, and a ripple of chuckles went through the orchestra."

Mr. Rostropovich accumulated more than 50 honorary degrees and numerous other honors over the decades, including the highest awards given to artists in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In this country, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.

He is survived by his wife, two daughters and their families.

As a musician and humanitarian, Mr. Rostropovich easily measured up to his nickname, enjoying a life filled with glory.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

Wire reports contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
34°