on the record: April 2007 Archives
A recent inquiry from a British reporter on the subject of woman conductors started me thinking about that issue. There is no question that in the 43 years I've been involved with classical music I have seen a sea change in that area - perhaps as dramatic or more dramatic a change than I have seen in any other facet of the music business...
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.
If you want encouragement about the future of music, spend some time around youth orchestras. I had a wonderful experience on March 29-30 in Great Falls, Montana. For 2 one-week residencies every year, the extraordinarily generous violinist Midori immerses herself in a small community (for which she dramatically reduces her fee, by the way), performing on its orchestra's subscription concert, and working with that orchestra's affiliated youth orchestra. She also visits schools and coaches chamber music, spending so much time with so many young musicians that one feels there must be two of her...
An interesting development seems to me to be bubbling up in the world of symphony orchestras over the past five years or so. It may even have begun earlier - movements of this nature start quietly in one place, and then spread and suddenly come onto one's radar. The development is a re-examination of the issue of ticket prices to symphony concerts, a change in attitude about price elasticity...