On April 27, one month to the day after his 80th birthday, the National Symphony Orchestra's Conductor Laureate, Mstislav Rostropovich, died in Moscow. In recent weeks the world has lavished accolades upon him, speaking of his musicianship, his personality, his courage, and his ardent advocacy of human rights.
Maestro Rostropovich was the National Symphony Orchestra's music director for 17 extraordinary years (1977-1994). Extensive touring, recording, hosting high-profile guest artists, and making music of incredible passion and intensity all these things were part of that tenure. Audiences around the world experienced that passion, even in Red Square, where the NSO played the first orchestral concert ever to take place there.
What audiences did not always see, however, was Rostropovich's amazing generosity. Some of it was public, of course. He contributed his time to performances with youth orchestras and to giving recitals for worthy causes. University music programs, victims of the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, the Save the Whales campaign, a local artist whose studio had burned down, and his own foundation providing healthcare to poor Russian children are but a few of the varied, numerous causes and persons whom he aided.
But on a more personal level, he was lavishly generous with his time and incredible knowledge. When he first came to the NSO, he instituted master classes for orchestra members. Anyone who liked could play for him and get immediate feedback feedback that was kept separate from rehearsals. "Like confession," explained the conductor, refusing to allow any criticism from a master class to spill over into the official NSO activities.
The world has seen the photo of Slava, as he was known, playing his cello at the Berlin Wall. He also played the Bach Sarabande at the funeral of one of the NSO's stage technicians. Whether it was an impromptu performance at the funeral of a friend, or an in-flight birthday party for two members as the NSO returned from a South American tour, Rostropovich was wholeheartedly involved in the lives of his musicians.
The Washington Post's April 28 editorial, extolling his courageous defense of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his support to Boris Yeltsin during the attempted coup in 1991, included this sentence: "Freedom had no better friend."
Neither did the NSO.