My first encounter with the elemental musical force that is Mstislav Rostropovich took place at Woolsey Hall in New Haven, Connecticut. The Vietnam War was raging, the Cold War order was still very much intact, and Rostropovich was still (at least outwardly) a loyal Soviet artist living in Moscow. None of this had prevented American audiences from embracing the talent and spirit of Rostropovich, however, who had developed an enthusiastic following in the United States since his debut here as what the New York Herald Tribune had called the "Red Cellist" in 1956. On this evening about 15 years later, Woolsey Hall was packed and anticipation was running high. Rostropovich did not disappoint his fans. He played the First Cello Concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich with a white-hot urgency, passion, and ebullience that transformed the music into some kind of existential and defiant proclamation. Rostropovich used his instrument to tell a story by turns tragic, funny, and strange. It was unlike any concert I had ever seen or heard and it mattered in a way I hadn't known music could matter.
At the time, I was unaware that Shostakovich had written the Concerto especially for Rostropovich; that it was in fact the first in a long series of works composed by Shostakovich for the man considered by many to be the greatest cellist who has ever lived. For nearly 30 years, Shostakovich and Rostropovich spent "hours working together," according to Shostakovich's son, Maxim. "They used to talk so much that once when Slava arrived, my papa said to him, 'How about if we keep quiet for a while?'"
Over the years, I have been fortunate to see Rostropovich again numerous times, both as cellist and conductor. As a graduate student at Berkeley, I met Rostropovich in the flesh when he came to give a master class and recital at the University of California, in the autumn of 1975, about a year after he and his wife, singer Galina Vishnevskaya, had been expelled from the USSR as political dissidents. At the time, of course, they believed they would never again be able to return to their country. Who imagined then that the mighty Soviet Union would actually collapse in their lifetimes, and that they would make a triumphant return to post-Communist Russia as heroes of artistic freedom?
At those master classes in Berkeley, Rostropovich repeatedly counseled the students to remember the emotional and spiritual value of the music they were playing. "Pretend that if you don't love the music enough they'll take it away from you," he told one. "Those places in the music where I had tears in my eyes 30 years ago I still have tears in my eyes today," Rostropovich, then a young man of 48, confessed. "When I no longer have those tears I should no longer play. That's what a performer has to give."
Rostropovich has continued to shed tears, and to give lavishly and apparently indefatigably, in the years since that memorable Berkeley master class in 1975. On March 27, he will celebrate his 76th birthday. Characteristically, Rostropovich will mark the occasion by participating in a concert, this time as conductor, with the New York Philharmonic, joining up with one of the many brilliant young Russian musicians he has encouraged‹pianist Evgeny Kissin‹in one of the concerts in the Philharmonic Festival: Slava & Friends.
Kissin, one of the greatest Prokofiev interpreters in the world, will play Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, a seductive mixture of late Romantic lyricism and thoroughly modern irreverence written shortly before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Not long after completing the concerto (later rewritten in Paris after the original score was lost), Prokofiev went abroad to live for nearly 20 years. Also on the program is Prokofiev's monumental wartime Symphony No. 5, completed after Prokofiev had returned to Russia in 1936, and first heard in Moscow just as the Red Army was advancing across Poland toward Berlin in early 1945. As it happens, this all-Prokofiev concert (and another one conducted by Rostropovich on April 3-5, featuring the Russian Overture, excerpts from the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the Sinfonia concertante) also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of Prokofiev on March 5, 1953. By an incredible coincidence, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who so often complicated the lives of both Prokofiev and Rostropovich, died the very same day.
Rostropovich was one of the few people who managed to maintain close friendships with both Prokofiev and Shostakovich, who themselves remained at a respectful but wary distance from each other. Appropriately, their music is heavily represented in the Slava & Friends repertoire. When both composers were attacked by Communist Party officials at the infamous 1948 Composers' Conference for writing supposedly "inaccessible" and "antisocial" music, Rostropovich, unlike many others, stood steadfastly by them. For a while during this depressing period in Soviet cultural history, in the final years of Stalin's paranoid rule, Rostropovich even moved in with the then-embattled and ailing Prokofiev. They lived and worked together at Prokofiev's dacha outside Moscow, revising the composer's First Cello Concerto into what eventually became the Sinfonia concertante. This eloquent, moving, and profoundly lyrical work‹one of the greatest achievement's of Prokofiev's last years‹would never have assumed its final incarnation without Rostropovich's help and encouragement. He also introduced the piece to audiences all over the world, through live and recorded performances. In these New York Philharmonic concerts, Maestro Rostropovich entrusts the solo part to a young cellist making his debut with the orchestra, Xavier Phillips. In Russia and elsewhere, Rostropovich has worked with amazing energy and commitment (and, not infrequently, his own money) to promote the training of young musicians.
In the course of his long career, Rostropovich has also forged friendships with many of the greats of world music; some of them are still with us, some not. Their names are reflected in the music scheduled for the Slava & Friends festival: American Leonard Bernstein (Slava: A Political Overture), Frenchman Henri Dutilleux (Timbres, espace, mouvement), Englishman Benjamin Britten (the Violin Concerto, played by another young Russian, Maxim Vengerov), and Pole Krzysztof Penderecki (his Sextet will be played by Rostropovich, Russian viola tsar Yuri Bashmet, Israeli pianist Yefim Bronfman, and musicians of the Philharmonic).
For Rostropovich, music crosses all national borders and can help to heal all wounds, no matter how grave. That an average-looking fellow born in the scruffy oil-rush town of Baku (not exactly Vienna)‹who plays the cello (not exactly a glamour instrument), and lived for much of his life in a grim and prisonlike society that crushed the spirit of many of its most creative citizens‹has emerged so radiantly in the post-Cold War global arena as a smiling symbol of human individuality and creativity says something very encouraging to all of us.
Surely one of the most important ingredients of Rostropovich's success is that he has always lived in the present, whatever that might have been (and it was not always pretty). I'll always remember something he said during the Berkeley master class: "People often ask me what music I like best. My answer to that question is always the same: I like that piece best that I'm playing right now."
Harlow Robinson, Professor of Modern Languages and Historyat Northeastern University, is the author of biographies of Sergei Prokofiev and Sol Hurok, and editor and translator of Selected Letters of Sergei Prokofiev.