Measure by Measure

Remembering Rostropovich

A defender of the arts during authoritarian rule

By Sudip Bose | February 2, 2017
Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the National Symphony in 1993 (Wikimedia Commons/RIA Novosti archive)
Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the National Symphony in 1993 (Wikimedia Commons/RIA Novosti archive)


At the Kennedy Center last week, Christoph Eschenbach, now concluding his tenure as music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, led a performance of the Eighth Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich, a relentlessly bleak and powerful work written in 1943, as a response to the horrors of World War II. The interpretation was dramatic, absorbing, occasionally chilling, and it complemented the other work on the program, the Violin Concerto of Mieczysław Weinberg. A prolific Polish-Jewish composer, Weinberg made his home in the Soviet Union, upon fleeing the Nazi occupation of his homeland—in the same year that Shostakovich composed the Eighth. Weinberg’s music, idiomatically similar at times to Shostakovich’s, is only now being discovered in the West. The concerto’s soloist, Gidon Kremer, an artist I have long admired, is an intellectual and idiosyncratic musician who has championed numerous neglected composers, and for an encore, he offered another Weinberg piece, a beguiling Prelude for solo violin.

Shostakovich and Weinberg had more in common than a musical idiom. They also had a mutual friend in the legendary cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. Indeed, last week’s performances were among several this season dedicated to Rostropovich’s legacy in the nation’s capital. Forty years ago, having left the Soviet Union not long before, he began a 17-year period as music director of the NSO.

Rostropovich had few peers as a cellist, combining an almost superhuman virtuosity with a plush and shining tone. His exuberant musical approach and stage presence expressed at all times his extroverted, bighearted personality. He excelled not only in the warhorse concertos of Antonín Dvořak, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Robert Schumann but also in the many 20th-century masterpieces written for him, including works by Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Henri Dutilleux, and Witold Lutosławski. His recording of Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, made in the grand Romanesque church in the Burgundian village of Vézelay, could convince even the most unrepentant atheists that they were in the presence of the divine.

At a time when so many Soviet artists suffered, Rostropovich and his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, lived a more-or-less charmed existence, with an elegant Moscow apartment and a dacha in Zhukovka, just outside the city. Yet he was too principled, too uncompromising a defender of artistic expression, to remain silent when he saw injustice. As a young man, he stood by his professors Prokofiev and Shostakovich when they were vilified for “formalist perversions and anti-democratic tendencies … alien to the Soviet people.” Much later, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn became the target of near-continuous official persecution, Rostropovich was among his staunchest defenders. He housed Solzhenitsyn in his dacha, defying orders to turn the writer out. He famously penned an open letter to four Soviet newspapers that enraged government officials when it appeared in the West. In part, it read:

Explain to me, please, why in our literature and art so often people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word? 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.

Artists and intellectuals quietly rejoiced, but now Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya (one of the leading lights of the Bolshoi Opera) were targeted, too. On the grounds of committing “cultural offenses,” the government cancelled their citizenship, forbidding the couple from traveling abroad while greatly limiting their performances at home. Almost overnight, they became nonpersons. Rostropovich’s appetite for vodka had always been large, but now, having plunged into a deep wintry funk, he drank more than ever. As he would later say, “I had no choice, only to commit suicide or leave my country.”

So leave Mother Russia they did, and in 1977, in what was a victory for the United States in the great culture battles of the Cold War, Rostropovich took over the leadership of not just any orchestra, but the National Symphony Orchestra, in the capital of America. Take that, Moscow. In the previous decade, Washington had been striving to establish itself as a cosmopolitan world capital, and it now had as the head of one of its major institutions not just a champion of human rights, a fierce defender of the arts, a symbol, and a lightning rod, but also a bona fide international star. Some 9,000 new subscribers would soon sign up, and the quality of the orchestra’s performances generally improved.

Conducting may have been Rostropovich’s first love, but his lack of formal training occasionally showed. The reviews of his concerts could be damning, citing sloppiness, even apathy. Not that he was bothered much by this criticism. For him, communicating depth of emotion was far more important than perfect ensemble playing or a meticulous baton technique. Sure enough, in the Russian repertoire—the symphonies of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky—and in the works of friends such as Britten, pieces of music that he lived and breathed, his performances were riveting and transcendent.

I moved to Washington in 1996, nearly two years after Leonard Slatkin took over as music director of the NSO. I did, however, get to see Rostropovich conduct twice, in the span of one week in April 2006. On a Saturday night at Lincoln Center, I heard him lead the New York Philharmonic in two works by Shostakovich—the Tenth Symphony and the First Violin Concerto, with Maxim Vengerov as soloist. (It was the Shostakovich centennial that year, and the composer’s work was being heard all over the world.) The following Saturday, I heard him back in Washington, leading the NSO for the final time. On the program was Leonard Bernstein’s Slava! A Political Overture, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Dutilleux’s Correspondances, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, and Dvořak’s Symphony No. 8. Both performances were remarkable. Rostropovich’s Shostakovich was mesmerizing, emotionally involved, haunting: a lifetime of wisdom conveyed in every one of his gestures and cues. The D.C. concert was just as memorable, the Dvořak spry and lithe and full of good humor, the Britten and Dutilleux as atmospheric as could be.

And yet, I remember most of all the stark contrast in audience reaction. In New York, the ovation was thunderous and prolonged. The crowd knew that it was in the presence of a god, and the response was equal parts veneration and genuflection. In Washington, however, the reaction was tepid, routine, almost indifferent—just another concert, with just another conductor. Was it simply a matter of familiarity? Some lingering memory of the unevenness of Rostropovich’s final days as the orchestra’s conductor? Would the reaction have been different had the audience known that in just one year, Rostropovich would be dead?

“Only in the West can we realize our dreams in art.” So said Rostropovich upon his arrival in Washington. He is a reminder, especially in these ominous times, of how one musician can stand up to a dictatorial regime, a reminder that art will forever be the most supreme expression of the human spirit. The bravest among us have always shown that art is worth fighting for, and, when it is threatened by an oppressive state, worth dying for, too.

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