Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich dies at age 80

By Allan Kozin
From the New York Times - April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich, a cellist and conductor who was renowned not only as one of the great instrumentalists of the 20th century, but also as an outspoken champion of artistic freedom in Russia during the final decades of the Cold War, died in Moscow on Friday. He lived in Paris, with homes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, London and Lausanne, Switzerland.
The Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography confirmed that Rostropovich died in a Moscow hospital after a long illness. His press secretary would not release the cause of death.

Rostropovich was hospitalized in Paris at the end of January, but decided to fly to Moscow, where he has been in and out of hospitals and sanitoriums since early February. Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin called Rostropovich’s death “a tremendous loss for Russian culture.”Rostropovich will be buried in Moscow at the Novodevichy Cemetery, where on Wednesday his friend, Boris Yeltsin, post-Soviet Russia’s first president, was laid to rest.

As a cellist, Rostropovich played a vast repertory that included works written for him by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century. Among them were Shostakovich Cello Concertos, Prokofiev’s Cello Concerto, Cello Sonata and Symphony-Concerto, Britten’s Sonata, Cello Symphony and three Suites. He also played the premieres of solo works by Walton, Auric, Kabalevsky and Misaskovsky, and concertos by Lutoslawski, Panufnik, Messiaen, Schnittke, Henri Dutilleux, Arvo Part, Krzysztof Penderecki, Lukas Foss and Giya Kancheli.

Perhaps because his repertory was so broad, he was able to make his cello sing in an extraordinarily range of musical accents. As a conductor, Rostropovich was an individualist. He happily molded tempos, phrase shapes and instrumental balances to suit an interpretive vision that was distinctly his own, and if his work did suit all tastes, it was widely agreed that the passion he brought to the podium yielded performances that were often as compelling as they were unconventional. He was at his most eloquent — and also his most freewheeling — in Russian music, particularly in the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.

Rostrapovich was the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington D.C., from 1977 to 1994, and retained close ties with the orchestra as its Conductor Laureate. But he has maintained strong relationships with several of the world’s great orchestras, including the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. Last year, Rostropovich announced that he would stop playing the cello publicly, but his conducting remained as vigorous as ever, and his schedule included commemorations of the Shostakovich centenary in New York, Washington, San Francisco, Moscow and Tokyo.

Rostropovich, who was widely known by his diminutive, Slava (which means glory in Russian), was also an accomplished pianist. He was often the accompanist at recitals by his wife, the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, whom he married in 1955, and who survives him, as do two daughters, Olga and Elena.

Rostropovich became famous well beyond musical circles, as a symbol of artistic conscience and his defiance of the Soviet regime. When the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn came increasingly under attack by Soviet authorities in the late 1960’s, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya allowed him to stay in their dacha at Zhukovka, outside Moscow. He was their guest for four years, and Rostropovich tried to intercede on his behalf, personally taking the manuscript of “August 1914” to the Ministry of Culture and arguing that there was nothing threatening to the Soviet system in it. His efforts were rebuffed.His own troubles began in 1970 when, out of frustration with the suppression of Solzhenitsyn and other writers, artists and musicians, he sent an open letter to Pravda, which did not publish it, and Western newspapers, which did.“Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word,” he asked in the letter. “Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and express his opinion about what he knows, what he has personally thought about and experienced, and not merely to express with slightly different variations the opinion which has been inculcated in him.”After the publication of the letter, Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya, both among the Soviet Union’s most internationally renowned stars, found themselves unable to travel abroad, and facing dwindling engagements at home. Occasionally, it would seem that the ban was lifted. In 1971, Rostropovich conducted and Vishnevskaya sang in Bolshoi Opera performances of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” in Vienna, and Rostropovich was allowed to travel to the United States for concerts. But the next year, scheduled appearances in Austria and Britain were canceled without explanation.It was not until 1974 that they were allowed out of the country again. That year they were given two-year travel visas. In the West, Rostropovich continued to be outspoken, telling interviewers that he missed Russia and longed to return, but that he would not do so until artists were free to speak their minds.“I will not utter one single lie in order to return,” he said in 1977. “And once there if I see new injustice, I will speak out four times more loudly than before.”The Soviet Government’s response was to revoke his and Vishnevskaya’s citizenship in 1978. Thereafter they traveled on special Swiss documents. But they outlived the Soviet system. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of increased openness, Rostropovich began to renew his contacts with his homeland. He met with Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan at the White House in 1987, and in Nov. 1989, immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Rostropovich gave an impromptu concert there. He returned to the site in 1999 to perform in a concert celebrating the 10th anniversary of the event.In January 1990, Rostropovich’s Soviet citizenship was restored. The following month, he took the National Symphony to Moscow and what was then Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). His return was the subject of a television documentary, “Soldiers of Music: Rostropovich Returns to Russia,” released on video in 1992. In 1991, when Communist hard-liners tried to topple the more open regime. Rostropovich went to Moscow to stand beside Boris N. Yeltsin. And two years later, during the siege of the Russian White House, Rostropovich, who was touring Russia again with the National Symphony, gave a free concert in Red Square, attended by 100,000 people. Originally planned merely as a gesture to music lovers who were unable to attend the formal indoor concerts, the performance was transformed into a show of support for democratization. “Russians need to be reminded at times like this that they are a great people,” he told a New York Times reporter at the time. “Events disrupt things a little sometimes, but listening to this music is a reminder that there’s a great nation here.” His soloist for his 1993 Russian tour was Ignat Sozhenitsyn, a pianist and the son of Solzhenitsyn.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, on March 27, 1927. His parents, Leopold Rostropovich and Sofiya Nikolaevna Fedotov, were both musicians, and his mother began teaching him the piano when he was four. When he was eight, he began to study the cello with his father, who had been a student of Pablo Casals, in Paris. In the mid-1930s, the family moved to Moscow, where Mr. Rostropovich entered the Gnesin Institute. He made his debut at age 13, playing a Saint-Sakens Concerto in Slavyansk, Ukraine, and in 1943, when he was 16, he entered the Moscow Conservatory as a student of Semyon Kozolupov.He also studied composition with Shostakovich, and continued to do so even after the Soviet authorities condemned both Shostakovich and Prokofiev for “formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies.” He later studied composition privately with Prokofiev, and although his compositions are not well known, they include two piano concertos, a string quartet and several solo piano works.By the late 1940s, Rostropovich had won competitions in Moscow and, in his first trips outside the Soviet Union, in Prague and Budapest. He toured widely during the 1950s, and in 1956 — the year he was appointed to a professorship at the Moscow Conservatory — he made his American debut at Carnegie Hall with a recital program that included sonatas by Brahms, Shostakovich and Bach, and as the soloist in the Prokofiev Concerto with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos. Rostropovich was fond of concerto marathons. In an eight-concert series with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967, he played 30 works by 24 composers. He celebrated his 60th birthday in 1987 similarly. In New York, he gave five concerts with three orchestras — the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the National Symphony — playing 15 cello concertos (half of them contemporary) and conducting a handful of symphonies, as well as the Britten “War Requiem.” As a bonus, he also performed Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. He presented similar series in Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, London, Boston and Washington.Rostropovich made his conducting debut in 1968, when he led a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” at the Bolshoi. He made his British conducting debut with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1974. His first American conducting performances were with the National Symphony and the San Francisco Opera, both in 1975.“I never studied, but I had the best teachers,” he said of his new career in 1975. “I played with the best conductors of the world. Each has his own quality and from each I find what style is best for me.”

In 1977, Rostropovich accepted the directorship of the National Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Antal Dorati. For one of his first concerts, Leonard Bernstein wrote “Slava!,” a festive overture that captured the ebullience of Rostropovich’s style. And although critics complained at first that his repertory was unduly conservative, he quickly threw himself into contemporary works, including many composed for him and his orchestra.During his tenure, he made significant improvements in the orchestra’s sound and cohesiveness, partly by reseating the strings — he moved the violas to the outside and the cellists to the center, to create a richer blend — but also by systematically upgrading the roster. He also brought the orchestra into the world spotlight, taking it on its first tours of Europe, Asia and Russia, conducting it regularly at Carnegie Hall and making many recordings with it.The most frequent criticism of Rostropovich as a conductor was that he sometimes became so carried away with the music that he let the performance get out of his control. Rostropovich object to this analysis.“When I go to a rehearsal,” he told The New York Times in 1985, “I have already a model in my mind for the sound of a piece, for the shape of the interpretation. Maybe I’m wrong, but if there are no special acoustical problems in the hall, I produce exactly what I want. If there is a choice, I would rather have ideas and some difficulties of technique than a perfect technique and no ideas.”

For several years, Rostropovich was a director of Benjamin Britten’s summer festival at Aldeburgh, England, and for a few seasons beginning in 1983, he had his own festival nearby, in Snape. Although conducting seemed to be his principal interest from the late 1970s on, he continued to pursue an active recital and concerto career as a cellist. His instrument was the 1711 “Duport” Stradivarius, which he had fitted out with a special bent tailpin that made the angle at which the cello is held more comfortable.He also continued to make superb recordings, making his way through the great cello works several times. Yet it was not until 1991, when he was 63, that he decided to record all six of the Bach Suites, a set he considered the crowning glory of the instrument’s literature. It was a project over which he maintained complete control. He chose the site, the Basilique Sainte-Madeleine, in the Burgundian village of Vaezelay, France, because he considered the church’s acoustics perfect and the simplicity of its architecture inspiring. He produced and edited the recordings himself, and paid for the sessions so that if he were dissatisfied, he would be free to destroy the tapes. As it turned out, he was pleased with the results, which were released on CD and video in 1995.Rostropovich frequently presided over cello master classes, and in 1997 he began offering a regular series of such classes, as well as performances, in his hometown, Baku, Azerbaijan. In 2004, the house in Baku where the Rostropovich family lived from 1925 to 1931 was opened as the Leopold and Mstislav Rostrovich Home-Museum.Rostropovich’s charitable work outside music includes the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation, established in 1991 to provide health services and immunization from childhood diseases to children of the republics of the former Soviet Union. The foundation also underwrites AIDS research, and in April, 2006, Rostropovich was appointed Special Representative for Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS.

Many honors were bestowed on him. He was an Honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire, a Commander of the Legion of Honor of France, a Commander of the Phoenix Order of Greece and a holder of the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, this country’s highest civilian award, in 1987, and he was the recipient of Kennedy Center honors in 1992. His Soviet and Russian honors include a Stalin Prize, from 1951, the title People’s Artist of the Soviet Union, awarded in 1956, and the Defender of Free Russia Medal, awarded in 1993. He also held honorary doctorates from more than 30 universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the Curtis Institute of Music, Oxford, Cambridge, Georgetown and Tel Aviv.


'The greatest cellist of all time'

By Julian Lloyd Webber
From the Telegraph - 28/04/2007

Rostropovich was quite simply one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived.

In cello terms he was a colossus – most probably the greatest cellist of all time.

For quite apart from his superlative playing, Rostropovich looked to the future and inspired an astonishing number of new works for the cello. Britten (five major pieces), Shostakovich (two concertos), Prokofiev, Walton, Lutoslawski, Dutilleux, Khatchaturian, Penderecki – the list seems endless – all composed for him.
It would be difficult to name any other musician who has come near to matching his achievement in creating an entire new repertoire for their instrument.
I first heard 'Slava' Rostropovich when I was 13. I had heard other cellists before but none had made the same impact on me.
In 1964 he gave a series of nine concerts in London, playing 30 different concertos in just four weeks.
In the programme Rostropovich wrote: "The cello has become, in our times, a tribune, an orator, a dramatic hero."
It was a phrase that struck an immediate chord within me and it was undoubtedly Rostropovich who inspired me to make the cello my own profession.
Rostropovich had such extraordinary magnetism as a performer that he would often receive a standing ovation before he had even played a note.
Nobody present at the Royal Albert Hall Prom in August 1968 will ever forget his extraordinary performance of the Dvorak Concerto.
It was the day that the Soviet tanks had rolled into Prague and Rostropovich was playing the most famous Czech concerto of all with a Soviet orchestra under a Soviet conductor.
Many people felt the concert should be cancelled but it went ahead with protesters both inside and outside the hall.
The tension was unbearable and when Slava reached the beautiful cello theme in the first movement there were tears streaming down his face.
No one in the hall was left in any doubt where his sympathies lay.
When Rostropovich walked into a room everybody seemed to be energised. His enthusiasm was wonderfully contagious.
Musicians, statesmen and royalty all loved Slava. When Senator Edward Kennedy heard of his troubles in the Soviet Union he personally asked Brezhnev to intervene. Astoundingly, Rostropovich was granted a two-year visa to "travel for artistic purposes".
When I interviewed Rostropovich for this newspaper in 2004 I asked him whether, given his top-level contact with politicians, he had ever been tempted to go into politics.
He replied: “People make a big mistake to think that I am interested in politics. I am interested in people. At first, I was a very good 'Soviet citizen'. But when I heard of Solzhenitsyn's plight, I went to see him and he was being treated like a dog. I offered him refuge and that is when my troubles started."
It has often been said that the cello is the nearest instrument to the human voice and Slava made the cello 'speak' like no other. The secret lay not only in his phrasing but in his sound. Rostropovich cajoled his audience through his cello and its sound was filled with the breath of God.


"The Magnificent Maestro" of the NSO

By Tim Page
From the Washington Post - Friday, April 27, 2007

Mstislav Rostropovich died this morning in the city he had always considered his home -- in Moscow, where he had been flown from Paris by private jet in February after it became apparent that he could not long survive.
"Music and art are a whole spiritual world in Russia," he once said. "In Russia, when people go to a concert, they don't go to it as an attraction, as an entertainment, but to feel life."
The life force that was Rostropovich ceased exactly one month after his 80th birthday. On a day of mourning for all those who love music, the grief is felt acutely in Washington, where the exiled Rostropovich was the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra from 1977 to 1994.
Even had he never picked up a baton, Rostropovich would still be remembered as one of the great musicians of the 20th century -- a noble and impassioned cellist whose stated intention was to combine the qualities he most admired in his famous predecessors: "sound from [Gregor] Piatigorsky, ideas and personality from [Pablo] Casals, feeling and beauty from [Pierre] Fournier." He was an unabashed Romantic who played with a full, burnished tone, effusive emotionalism and a virtuosic command of the instrument.
Moreover, he was a bold proponent of contemporary music. In addition to the works created for him by Soviet composers such as Serge Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, Reinhold Gliere and Aram Khachaturian, Rostropovich had pieces dedicated to him by Lukas Foss, Leonard Bernstein, Henri Dutilleux and Benjamin Britten. Indeed, the cellist is credited with reawakening Britten's interest in instrumental music after a long period of mostly vocal composition. Britten works created especially for Rostropovich include three suites for unaccompanied cello, a sonata for cello and piano, and a symphony for cello and orchestra. It is a huge gift to the cello repertory -- and to 20th-century music.
Yet Rostropovich had always wanted to conduct. "It was my first dream," he said. "If I play cello or piano, I make sound through instruments, but this instrument is not alive. A conductor must make a very deep connection, not with instruments but with people. He must use not only the baton but also eyes, expression and, most important, his musical personality."
Rostropovich made his American conducting debut with the NSO in March 1975. Three weeks later, he was selected as the orchestra's fourth music director -- which came as a distinct and unpleasant shock to its third music director, Antal Dorati, who was informed of the board's decision immediately before he was scheduled to lead a matinee concert featuring Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." By all accounts, Dorati had improved the orchestra enormously after he took it over in 1970, and the Hungarian conductor had planned to stay until 1980.
Instead, Rostropovich began his music directorship a little more than two years later, at the beginning of the 1977-1978 season. According to Ted Libbey's authoritative history of the NSO, Rostropovich's "stellar reputation called attention to the orchestra wherever it played -- not just in Washington but all over the world. Audiences were captivated. Critics found themselves reaching for the sort of romantic imagery usually reserved for fiction. He was a knight in shining armor, riding out of Russia to 'glory' (which is what his nickname 'Slava' means in Russian). He was the passionate suitor, arriving unexpectedly, sweeping the orchestra and its public off their feet and then -- to the surprise of many -- staying for the long haul."
It didn't hurt that Rostropovich the man was as warm and generous as his artistry. It was not unusual for him to leap from his conductor's podium after a particularly satisfying interpretation and hug and kiss every musician within reach. He was a shameless, irrepressible flirt, and a connoisseur of fine food and drink, a man who gulped vodka in much the same way -- and with much the same enthusiasm -- that a professional athlete might gulp Gatorade. He was good copy for anybody who wanted to write about him: Time Magazine put Rostropovich on its cover, calling him "The Magnificent Maestro."
He was also a figure of considerable moral stature. While he was still a student, his mentors Serge Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich were condemned by Soviet authorities for adhering to "formalist perversions and antidemocratic tendencies, which are alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes." (This line -- a mixture of ersatz populist idealism and vicious personal attack -- could stand as the perfect template for Stalinist criticism.) Prokofiev knuckled under; Shostakovich, who had been one of Rostropovich's teachers, was dismissed from the Moscow Conservatory. "For two years, not one piece by them was played in my country," Rostropovich said in 1977. "But I did not change my professors like the other students."
As one consequence of the liberalization that followed the death of Stalin, Soviet artists were able to undertake concert tours of the West. Rostropovich made his London debut in March 1956, and his American debut the following month, at Carnegie Hall. Recordings helped to further his fame (he would eventually record virtually all of the standard cello repertory). During the late 1950's and the 1960's, Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, pursued highly successful careers. They lived in a grand apartment in Moscow and at their dacha in the village of Zhukovka outside the capital.
Yet at the turn of the 1970s, Rostropovich proved himself a man who was willing to put principle and friendship ahead of his celebrity and privilege -- one of the few real heroes in the Cold War. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a leading dissident, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1970, official attacks on the author and his already-controversial books increased until Rostropovich decided to mount a formal public protest. .
"This was the greatest step of my life -- the greatest!" he recalled. "With my whole soul, I said 'now I will not be silent!' " He addressed his letter to four Soviet papers, all of which refused to publish it -- an eventuality that Rostropovich had foreseen and surmounted by leaking copies to Western journalists.
"Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?" the letter read, in part. "Every man must have the right fearlessly to think independently and express his opinion about what he knows, what he has personally thought about and experienced, and not merely to express with slightly different variations the opinion which has been inculcated in him."
Solzhenitsyn was exiled shortly thereafter, but Rostropovich and his wifewere chastened in a different manner. Their professional engagements dwindled, and their recordings were no longer played on the State radio. When Rostropovich performed with the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, only Richter's name appeared in the reviews.
Still, if Rostropovich was treated as a "nonperson" by the Kremlin, he became a hero to Soviet intellectuals. When he played a concert at Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in early 1971, he was greeted ecstatically. "The audience rises and applauds for 10 minutes in one of the few Moscow political demonstrations that cannot be punished," Susan Jacoby wrote in The New York Times Magazine. "Who can take down the names of everyone at the concert? Who is to say the audience is not simply paying tribute to a great musician?"
In May 1974, the Rostropovichs were permitted to leave on a two-year visa. They would not return until 1990, when the NSO made a triumphant debut in the last days of the liberalized Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Three years later, the NSO returned and played the first-ever orchestral concert in Red Square. After the fall of communism, Rostropovich's relations with his native country grew markedly warmer; Russian president Vladimir Putin visited him in the hospital in February and toasted him at an emotional 80th birthday celebration at the Kremlin last month.
I met Rostropovich in 1982, when I was sent to write about him for the Saturday Review. His time was already booked through 1984, it was three days before the NSO was scheduled to leave on a European tour, and the morning rehearsal had gone on too long, putting him a precious hour behind. Yet he greeted me with a hearty bear hug and betrayed not a trace of impatience during the course of our interview. He understood English, but generally answered in Russian, translated by an interpreter.
In the latter part of his career, the number of Rostropovich's conducting appearances just about equaled his performances as a cellist. He was generally considered a mercurial, passionately enthusiastic orchestra leader, always at his best in Russian music. Indeed, he was probably the closest thing we had to a grand, shamanistic maestro in the tradition of Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwangler. Like those legendary conductors of yore, Rostropovich was never mistaken for a flawless technician. Nor did Rostropovich especially care. "There is too much emphasis on technical perfection nowadays, and not enough on what music is actually about -- irony, joy, human suffering, love," he told me.
I had mixed reactions to his conducting. It seemed to me that his performances of the standard repertory could be downright awful -- sloppy and unbridled and seemingly purely impulsive. And yet, when he was inspired, he summoned such eager and electrical playing from his forces that he banished all doubt. At such moments, the NSO musicians seemed happy to respond to Rostropovich's perpetually rudimental stick technique (up and down and down and up) and they gave him more music than they gave to many other, more polished maestros.
And rightly so, for Rostropovich's tumultuous, urgent and ecstatic artistry seemed a virtual embodiment of the great line from Walt Whitman: "I am the man, I suffered, I was there." Let us be glad that we, too, could be there to listen.

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