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April 27, 2007

Remembering Slava

I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my professional life - having the opportunity to work with some of the greatest musical artists of the world. As an orchestra administrator I have been privileged to work with four music directors and countless guest conductors. But one stands out as a gigantic human being who really was larger than life, and we have all lost him - Mstislav Rostropovich.

From 1981-1985, as Executive Director of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, I came to know and love Slava - and his death on April 27, just past the age of 80, has taken from us a unique artist and a unique man. It is hard to know where to begin to assess his legacy.

As a musician one can talk about his passionate, deeply felt cello playing, his remarkably powerful and convincing conducting, particularly of the music of his friend and colleague Shostakovich. But one must, above all, remember the legacy that he has left all of us in the great expansion of the cello repertoire for which he was singlehandledly responsible. No other superstar in our time made the kind of effort that he did to commission and premiere major works for his instrument. A huge percentage of the important works for cello that have entered the repertoire were created because he brought them into being. Concertos and Sonatas of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, the Lutoslawski Concerto, the Dutilleux Concerto, the Penderecki Concerto, the Britten Cello Symphony and Cello Suites, the Concerto and a Sonata by Miaskovsky, Tenebrae by Arne Nordheim (a much under-rated work), over 200 major works in all. Every cellist in the world owes Slava a debt of gratitude for enriching their repertoire.

His conducting technique may have been rudimentary - but orchestras loved playing under him because the music just poured out of his soul. He was one of the favorite guest conductors of the Chicago Symphony - as one musician said to me, the clarity of the stick just doesn't matter with him - you know exactly what kind of sound he wants, what kind of effect he's after. He oozes music. When he was conducting the symphonies of Shostakovich, he was conducting music that he lived with even as it was being written - he lived next door to Shostakovich and the composer used to come over and bring his scores-in-progress to Rostropovich and the two of them would go over them.

Besides his cello and conducting abilities, he was a prodigious pianist - though almost exclusively heard accompanying his wife Galina Vishnevskaya as she sang the great Russian song repertoire. As a chamber music partner, just listen to his recording of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata with his friend Benjamin Britten at the piano - here are two remarkable musicians conversing through music with each other.

But one also has to remember his human legacy. This is the man who, when the Soviets took away Solzhenetsyn's dascha, said to the great writer "you come live with us," thus destroying his own career in Russia, and eventually leading to his having to leave his country and being stripped of his citizenship. I'll never forget Slava saying to me in Washington "you know, Henrychka, they can take this Russian out of Russia, but they can never take Russia out of me." He lived for the fall of communism, and he saw it come and participated in the moment. He joined Boris Yeltsin in the famous stand against the communist attempt to re-take the government, he played at the Berlin wall after it fell.

He was a fighter for humanity, and, in his own oft-used phrase, "a soldier for music." I am going to miss him more than I can say - we're all going to miss him.

Posted by hfogel at April 27, 2007 10:48 PM

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Dear Henry: A beautiful testament to a wholly beautiful artist and human being. I was lucky enough to experience Slava as both cellist and conductor on a few occasions, and his joyous spirit was truly infectious. Thank you for this insightful tribute.

Posted by: Deborah Fleitz at April 30, 2007 10:12 AM

I second Deborah; wonderful tribute, Mr. Fogel. I was fortunate enough to see him conduct twice, or actually 1.5 times, in Chicago. The first occasion was the 1999 Shostakovich Festival concert where Mr. Rostropovich soloed in Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto, almost 40 years after the premiere, and then he conducted Shostakovich 13. I still remember him walking into the orchestra to Gene Pokorny to give him a solo bow.

The second concert was Britten's "War Requiem". I remember from the CSO program booklets translations of Rostropovich's statements, where he says something to the effect that his three musical heroes were Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten.

(As an aside, I recall also that he succinctly characterized Solomon Volkov's work regarding Shostakovich as "rubbish", but that's a story for another day.)

Mr. Rostropovich was definitely one in a million. Part of his musical teaching legacy lives on in St. Louis, with principal cello Daniel Lee, a pupil of Rostropovich.

Posted by: Geo. at April 30, 2007 5:08 PM

In 1968, when I went to my first executive director job, in Norfolk VA, Slava had already been engaged for the following season. It was his first experience with what he then called a "housewife's orchestra" (we called it 'metropolitan,' which essentially meant part time). We had double rehearsals on Sunday for a Monday evening subscription concert. Because we had the import musicians there, we also played a 1 p.m. children's concert on Monday, for which he was not contracted. Slava was scheduled to play the (then) recently discovered Haydn C major concerto. Back then, he couldn't bear the thought of a concert taking place anywhere near him without his taking part. And besides, the concerto needed more rehearsal. So when he heard we had a children's concert on the schedule, he offered to play for free. My daughters are the same ages as his, and the oldest, then ten, was studying the cello at the time. The most treasured photo I have is of Slava hugging them with his hand guiding Juli's as she bowed his cello.

On the way to the airport, he told me "Subscription concert was for contract. Children's concert was for heart."

I had the privilege, in a 40-year orchestra management career, of meeting and working with many great musicians. But Rostropovich was the greatest artist and mensch I've ever known.

Posted by: Peter Smith at May 10, 2007 10:18 PM