In 1984 Leonard Rose called upon me at the end of my studies with him and Channing Robbins at the Juilliard School of Music to try out for a position as cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra. I agreed, with trepidation, knowing that I had only a short time to prepare. Nine days later, Mstislav Rostropovich hired me to become a member of his orchestra in Washington DC.
Throughout the coming decade, at a time when I was particularly impressionable, performing with the National Symphony in approximately 450 concerts to packed houses in every corner of the world, I marveled at Slava’s ability to push music and musicians to their emotional limits. Audiences were swept up in the experiences. Amidst wild cheers and standing ovations, holding his heart and blowing kisses, Slava acknowledged adoring fans. In his prime years as conductor, Slava seemed able to bring music alive spontaneously. To this young musician, Slava had no limits. I readily accepted his huge personality, which infused every phrase of every piece.
He urged us on more than one occasion, with stirring pep talks about quality and artistry, to become the “greatest Russian orchestra” in the world. What we realized then and now was Slava’s absolute firmness in his request. As a result, many of his unique interpretations with his powerful orchestra, recorded for posterity and presently stored in the National Symphony archives, will someday be uncovered. These are performances that sear the heart like no other conductor’s, before or since. Under Slava’s direction, we became conduits for the profound connection between conductor and composer.
In the early 1970s, an outspoken Rostropovich sent letters to major newspapers protesting the Soviet Union’s exclusion of Nobel Prize recipient and friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the Union of Writers. Slava had maintained through the years that his defense of Solzhenitsyn was a statement of his belief in freedom as a spiritual necessity. With unwavering will, seemingly unaware of the possible consequences, he exposed his long-time hatred for tyranny and social injustice within the Soviet Union. For this courageous defense of his beliefs, the cellist was severely punished by the powerful Soviet Ministry of Culture. Concerts all over his homeland began to go to others. His livelihood was in jeopardy.
Then, in 1974, while Rostropovich and his wife, the renowned singer Galina Vishnevskaya, were traveling abroad on a concert tour, Soviet authorities deprived them of their passports: the Rostropoviches could not return home. In response to this tragic turn of events, western governments immediately welcomed these great artists outside their homeland, where they would eventually influence generations of music lovers. Their imposed exile made big news in the music world, and it didn’t take long for Washington to reach out to Rostropovich. In 1977, Mstislav Rostropovich was appointed the NSO’s fifth music director. In 1990, upon Rostropovich’s return to his homeland after an excruciating sixteen-year exile, which among many personal losses barred him from attending the funeral of his beloved mentor and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich in 1975, the life-affirming Slava stated, “Conscience is my greatest creative power.”
The NSO was with him on this historic occasion. Upon landing, we beheld a remarkable sight: thousands of people yelling and cheering, holding up scores of banners and signs greeting their beloved Maestro: WELCOME HOME, WE LOVE YOU SLAVA, YOU ARE OUR HERO. He was mobbed like a movie star as soon as he stepped off the airplane. In fact, it was difficult for any musician to get through the airport that day. Slava’s return to Russia, captured on a videocassette entitled Soldiers Of Music, remains an inspiring tribute to this formidable artist.
Slava was known as a humanitarian well before his epic return to the Soviet Union. Armenia’s catastrophic earthquake in 1988, which killed 45,000 people and left another 500,000 homeless, prompted Slava to organize and perform benefit recitals for the victims. One of these recitals, at the Kennedy Center’s concert hall, was considered by some listeners as the greatest cello recital ever heard. In 1989 Slava traveled to Berlin to play solo cello out in front of the historic crumbling wall. In 1992 the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation was started to help build children’s hospitals in underserved rural regions of central Russia. With the support of corporations, philanthropies, governments and individuals, the efforts of the Foundation have resulted in the provision of modern medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, and nutritional products to pediatric facilities in St. Petersburg, Orenburg, and in the region of Nizhnij Novgorod.
Slava, with cello in hand, also became a fixture at numerous funerals for dignitaries and beloved fellow musicians. After America’s most significant cellist, Leonard Rose, died in 1984, the deeply religious Slava wrote about his final visit with Rose: “We spoke a long time that day, as two people tied by knots other than just their humanity. We talked of life and of death. Leaving the United States about two weeks later, I picked up a newspaper on the plane and read that my dear friend, my colleague and dear brother, was already waiting for me in another world.”
Slava, as music director, truly enjoyed getting to “know” his players. Those who wanted to get to know Slava were those who didn’t run away as Slava ambled down the hallways kissing everyone in sight. Yet, I don’t believe he treated me differently from anyone else in the orchestra. In my first season, Slava hosted a party for about 15 newcomers. With his long arms and body slung between his kitchen counter top and wall fifteen feet into his apartment, he would not let anyone pass until a full glass of vodka had been drunk – like it or not. This was the Slava way of initiating you to his world. That evening turned out to be a remarkable one full of toasts and stories, even featuring Slava playing passages from Don Quixote at the piano – from memory of course.
About a year later, Slava called me into his dressing room. At twenty-three, with my heart in my throat, I sat down across from him and inquired, “Slava, you wanted to see me?” “We make raise,” Slava exclaimed. “A raise?” Slava looked at me and I at him. “That’s it,” he said seated on his well-worn sofa as I got up to let myself out of his room. I floated in seventh heaven for the rest of that week. In a masterclass he regularly bestowed for orchestra members, he once had me stand up to show me all the different muscle groups that belong to my arms and shoulders indicating, “We must switch around. We must learn to use all muscles in case you get tired.”
Slava had a temper that could sting, especially if a player continuously disappointed him. God forbid someone make an error or not follow Slava’s volatile beat. The sustained, terrifying stares and upward turn of Slava’s palms directed at the player during a performance said it all. His “doghouse” demoralized, which sometimes resulted in dismissal. Although I never entered Slava’s “doghouse,” I was familiar with his notorious scrutiny. “Stevechik,” Slava called out during a rehearsal upon catching me in an awkward moment, “bad fingering.”
Once somewhere in Europe, I momentarily forgot to observe a non-vibrato indication. Slava noticed and looking directly at me with a frown, clasped his magnificent left hand to his chest. I was mortified. The next day, a limousine stopped on the street and out popped Slava to issue me a warning “non-vibrato”! My heart skipped a beat, but I was able to nod. For the rest of the tour, Slava looked my way each concert to make sure I was following orders. After noticing, a smile and a nod of his head assured me that I was OK. I can assure you that I never again forgot to look at Slava whenever a non-vibrato indication appeared in the score, for I think Slava enjoyed this little game of spy and catch.
In 1990, during a coaching session of Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok, written for Slava and Galina, I played a wrong accidental. Slava stopped the session, looked at me in a distressed way and politely inquired, “Are you crazy?” I was silent. He wanted to hear it again. I leapt up to the same note. He stopped me again. “Are you crazy?” The session ended happily but in some way, I have never forgotten his poignant idiom directed at me.
Yet, in 1986, after I got buried in the first round of his international cello competition in Paris, he unexpectedly invited me and two other colleagues to his Paris apartment. Cheese and champagne awaited us on the dining room table, situated across from a room that looked like a place of worship featuring all sorts of religious icons bathed in bright lights. My other two colleagues were advancing but I was not. Yet, what I remember from that day long ago was that Slava made an affectionate toast to me.
In Washington the following season, Slava invited me and another cellist colleague to solo with the orchestra. The result was a newly-written dynamic concerto for two cellos. During several intense sessions, Slava directly helped form the work, as his influence affected the concerto’s content. In 1988, Slava conducted the premiere of a Concerto for Two Cellos by American composer David Ott. The premiere was a resounding success. Had Slava given us a brief glimpse as to what it may have been like to have worked directly with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten? Thirty performances with numerous orchestras throughout America followed, including the National Symphony with Slava conducting on our 1989 and 1994 United States tours.
“Slava,” our longtime principal cellist, John Martin (1922-2005), called in his baritone voice. Slava looked John’s way. “Do you want it more legato or spicatto?” “Yes, yes,” Slava answered rapidly in the middle of other thoughts, not understanding John’s request. We would all smile. On other occasions John’s wit would send Slava’s body shaking silently with laughter for several seconds. Not knowing what had been said, we smiled nonetheless. How we loved to see Slava happy! Slava loved John: his dedication, his playing (he had studied with Piatigorsky), his sense of humor and above all, his leadership. After being informed on one of his final visits to Washington that John was dying, Slava took a limousine out to his house the very next morning for a private visit. After John’s death, Slava was seen in a photograph with a long face at John’s gravesite.
“Self service!” Slava suddenly cried out from the podium whenever a very difficult passage went wayward. For the next few minutes, orchestra members (always the string sections) practiced. Carefully, section-by-section was drilled by its commanding sergeant. “Soldiers for music!” Slava often told us. “We mussst be Soldiers for music!” Never giving in, he could rehearse bits and pieces of a work to death if he felt it necessary. As a result the orchestra often crept into overtime because Slava still had so much to do, angering the veterans who complained of his inability to organize rehearsals in the allotted time; on the other hand, youngsters marveled at Slava’s perseverance and thoroughness.
Slava’s concerti accompaniments could be trying. These readings were truly Slava and the soloist, and not the other way around. I believe Slava needed to show his authority, above all with young soloists. I so remember, however, noticing exasperated expressions on the faces of some soloists like Eugene Istomin and Isaac Stern. When conducting a cello concerto with one of his beloved colleagues, he would tell us, “I wish someone rehearse concerto like this when I play.” It was also always good fun to see Slava pick up the nearest cello to bow a passage or to show us a singular instrumental color while playing standing on the podium. It didn’t sound like much but his reaction to the applause, loudly tapping our bows on stands from the right side of the stage, put a big smile on all of our faces.
“You know, my friends,” Slava began. “It mussst be like …” What followed was a beautiful analogy. Even though Slava’s English wasn’t fantastic, he could cut to the essence of the music with his words. Making himself understood, the music that ensued sounded differently – more alive. Slava was particularly touched by the way his orchestra could play a “Slava” pianissimo, which was full of superb quiet vibrancy. In fact, in a farewell speech after his final concert in 1994, he told us that he would always be with us and that we should never forget how to make the pianissimos he taught to us.
More often than not, a Slava concert was an event. Always carrying his scores and smiling, in a nervous sort of way, Slava liked to bound on to the stage. After bowing quickly towards the audience, and after motioning the orchestra to be seated, we were greeted with a face beaming ear-to-ear with excitement, practically quivering with anticipation. I think Slava was always so grateful to be granted another day to make music. You could almost hear him thinking, as he looked at each of his sections, “Are you ready? You had better be!”
Slava’s physical style of conducting, coupled with prodigious emotional content, usually caused him to sweat profusely. It was not uncommon to see a completely drenched conductor after a performance. No matter, upon completion, a giddy Slava ran around congratulating each section leader, leading the applause himself, complete with kisses. “Thank you very much my friends,” Slava could be heard saying. When there was thunderous applause following a particularly moving score by Shostakovich or Prokofiev, Slava would often stand a foot or two away, gazing down upon the closed score, applauding with his oversized hands, as if saying, “I miss you and love you, my dear brother in heaven.”
Rostropovich could be warm and open. Numerous times I knocked on his door to ask him a question about a work that was created for him. I also made a point of playing that particular piece for him. I was young and I wanted to pick up as many pointers as I could on these pieces. His proud collaboration with his cello section that extended to performances at the White House, the Ronald Reagan Building, the Kennedy Center, and the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico provided ample opportunities for me to approach him. He rarely said no. Were these sessions easy? Of course not, as these mini-lessons were conducted with Slava’s expected resolve.
Mstislav Rostropovich was the lightning rod for 220 premieres; 150 as cellist – the most in the violoncello’s 400-year history – and another 70 as conductor (as he told the National Symphony in 2003). His fame was so vast that composers from all over the world wrote works exclusively for him. In 1967, Rostropovich would emulate the great German cellist Emanuel Feuermann (who took the concert stage by storm in 1938, performing virtually the entire known repertoire for solo cello and orchestra in New York in a series of four concerts with the National Orchestral Association) when he presented an even more ambitious undertaking in an eight-concert series with the London Symphony Orchestra playing 30 works by 24 composers (New York Times 4-29-07).
In 1987, for his 60th birthday celebration, Slava again proved to the music world his indomitable force. In February and March of that year, Rostropovich performed with and conducted the National Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony in Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and at the Kennedy Center. The repertoire he chose to play was jaw-dropping: February 7 with the National Symphony, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointain, Schumann’s Cello Concerto and Bloch’s Schelomo; February 19 and 20 with the New York Philharmonic, Penderecki’s Cello Concerto, Haydn’s Concerto in C and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme; February 21 and 24 with the New York Philharmonic, Britten’s Cello Symphony, Bernstein’s Three Meditations from Mass and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2; March 4 with the Boston Symphony, Boccherini’s Concerto in D, Strauss’ Don Quixote and Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante; March 5 with the Boston Symphony, Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in D, Lutoslowski’s Cello Concerto and Dvorák’s Cello Concerto; and Bach’s Six Suites at Grace Episcopal Church March 8 and 15.
Lon Tuck from the Washington Post wrote after the Kennedy Center performance with the NSO of Bloch’s Schelomo, Dutilleux’s Tout un monde lointoin and Dvorák’s Concerto: “Instead of tiring last night, he seemed to be getting more and more involved as the concert moved along … His command of the instrument is so stunningly assured, that he never seems to lose control. And in the process he gives an impression of adventurousness that few other string players have even approached.” Will Crutchfield from the New York Times wrote after Britten’s Symphony for Cello and Orchestra, Bernstein’s Three Meditations from Mass and Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2: “His technique remains stunning, his melodic line is silken, his facility in high harmonics uncanny, his phrasing that of a singer from the days when singers were set as models for string players.” Slava himself told a television audience in his seventieth year, “You know when I play the cello, I touch the strings with my words. I have noble dreams in my heart, my spirit, my personality and sound.”
One day after Slava performed Dvorák’s Concerto to open the New York Philharmonic’s 158th season on PBS Television in September of 1999, he came to DC. I received a call asking me to come to dinner with him and other members of the National Symphony’s cello section. I instantly made time to be with this icon. And there he was, at 72 years of age, standing before me. It had been years since I last saw him, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to be in his presence.
He greeted me with a three kiss salute; cheek, cheek, AND cheek. “My dearest,” he said with his familiar firm voice as his pungent cologne wafted into my nose, “delighted to see you.” “Slava,” I said, “you were great on TV last night.” “Not bad,” he muttered as he moved to the others in the room. For the next twenty minutes or so, I kibitzed with a friend but never took my eyes off him as he greeted each person with equal zest. Actually perhaps a bit more zest for the ladies in the room. I marveled at his appearance. He had not changed one bit. His hands still looked so wonderfully huge and youthful.
After we had all gathered and every glass was filled, Slava sauntered to the center of the room to make a toast: “We drink to newest member of cello section,” he demanded, two paces from the newest member of the section, who was already in his second season with the NSO. Upon inspection Slava exclaimed, “Not a serious enough drink.” The evening’s tone was set. Taking away his glass, Slava filled an empty one with vodka. Of course, we were all laughing now with the giddy feeling that for the next couple of hours we would all be treated by Slava’s presence. By the time the drinks had been downed, a spread of food had been beautifully laid out – meat, fish, pasta, bread and vegetables.
Subjects that evening ranged from Russian politics to the Presidential race in the United States and, of course, to Slava’s mind-boggling career in music. We asked him to compare Russia today with the Russia we saw on our last trip with him in 1993. “Much better today,” Slava said. He also called the people fighting from within Chechnya “criminals” and thought Russia was doing the right thing. All of a sudden he stopped his train of thought, smiled at each of us and proclaimed, “I am so happy to be with my family.”
Everyone at the table toasted Slava’s greatness. He reveled in the proceedings with smiles and kisses. Slava loved to tell stories, which included meeting his compatriot Heifetz: “So,” the violinist said in a cool, even tone, “you are Rostropovich.” Heifetz walked away without as much as a smile. And about Piatigorsky, who once scoffed brazenly to Slava’s face that some people believed that he, Piatigorsky, wasn’t the greatest cellist alive. “Some people think that you are the greatest. Hah!” And Slava told us how Shostakovich enticed him to come into his studio to play some unbearably difficult and lengthy harmonic passages. “My friends,” Slava told us, “I played it perfectly exactly one time.” The passage became the chilling introduction to Shostakovich’s compelling piano trio. Suddenly he made everyone at the table stand up for a toast that felt more like a salute. “To the cello,” Slava declared. It reminded me of the days when he directed the orchestra to stand for a moment of silence before a rehearsal in honor of a beloved colleague who had just passed away. Satisfied with the silence, he proceeded to tell us a funny anecdote that occurred between him and the deceased musician. We all shared in the humor and pain of the moment.
In 1971, Slava told us, he tried to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Earlier that year, Soviet Union authorities had taken many concerts away from him. Instead of playing in Moscow and St. Petersburg, they sent him off to the hinterlands of Siberia and other obscure cities, sometimes by sled, where he played concerts for Eskimos with gloves on his hands, but cut down so that his fingers could press the strings. I asked Slava why he never chose to perform or conduct Samuel Barber’s cello concerto composed in 1945. “You know, I still so mad at Sam [1910-1981]. I play for him and ask him, but he never wrote cello concerto for ME!” Slava told us that before he could speak English, he played the cello for a number of important American composers including Copland, Barber, Menotti, Piston and others, seeking to enlarge our repertoire.
After another prolonged absence from the National Symphony, Slava returned in March of 2003 to conduct an all Prokofiev program in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. It was an emotional week for the orchestra. Although he still had remarkable energy at 76 years of age, he began, at times, to look his age. His hair, no longer the long silvery white that coursed the back of his head, was now styled in a terse crew cut almost as if he had recently lost all his hair. His eyes were somewhat more sunken back into his skull. His posture was not as good as before. His gut appeared a bit larger than before. His hands, still so huge and youthful looking, now had a noticeable trace of the shakes when he reached up to adjust his glasses.
His mind though was still sharp. His stories about Prokofiev were moving; especially the incident when Prokofiev asked Slava, barely twenty, to bring him a compositional sketch. Slava put him off until finally one day, reluctantly, he brought in what he thought was slop but when Prokofiev looked over his work (“drooling a bit from his jowls” as Slava put it), he proceeded to pick out several passages, eventually including them in his magnificent concerto dedicated to Rostropovich that Prokofiev titled Sinfonia Concertante. Slava also told the orchestra that Prokofiev was a very particular man, dressing well and always looking fit – unlike himself and Shostakovich. Twice during that week Slava was visibly moved to tears. Once in rehearsal, at the start of the second movement of Sinfonia Concertante, he stopped, took a step back and, choking back tears, couldn’t speak for a few seconds. Then he uttered something that sounded like “Genius composer.” On opening night, during the slow movement of Symphony No. 5, he looked heavenward while wiping away a tear. How could any observant orchestra member not tear up with him?
I elected not to join a small party that had formed to take Slava out after the week’s final concert. Instead, I wanted to say my good-bye to him in his dressing room. “My beloved,” he kissed me in his customary way. As I handed him a small gift, I started to tell him that he was my hero but immediately all I could hear was Slava mimicking over and over, “No, you’re my hero.” When he understood that I was not joining the party, Slava drew me to the back of the dressing room where there was already an open bottle of vodka waiting for visitors like me. He poured two glasses to their limit and exclaimed, “Let’s drink.” We drank the vodka and I told him, with my arms on his shoulders and with him looking directly into my face, that I would never forget him. While I was saying this, he said over and over, “I love you.” I began to tear up and left his room.
In Slava’s final visit with the NSO in April of 2006, I sensed something was awry. Not widely known was that in the past year, Slava had been in and out of hospitals, with a purported heart condition, forcing cancellations of performances. Possibly as a result, his interpretations of works he had lived with all his life had become very slow, as if he didn’t quite know what phrase followed another until literally upon the moment. Slava flashed a short temper, and on top of that, he didn’t seem to recognize a single member of his orchestra. There was no organized party this visit. By a stroke of luck, I brought my two girls, aged 7 and 10, backstage at one of the concerts to have a photo with the legend. Perhaps one day, my children will know how lucky their daddy was to have worked with Rostropovich. During Slava’s final week with the NSO, I got the feeling that he was hiding some terrible ongoing health issue. Many of us expressed concerns whether he would be able to return in six months. When on short notice Slava canceled his fall weeks devoted to the music of Shostakovich, including his Cello Concerto No. 2 (written for Slava) with Yo-Yo Ma as soloist, word spread that Rostropovich was gravely ill.
Thank you, Slava, for hiring me to learn under your tutelage and to play in your orchestra, which you loved so deeply. Thank you, Slava, for listening to me play the cello for you in your dressing room, and numerous hotel rooms. You never charged me a penny. You always had such a generous heart and soul. Thank you for including me in ten years of music making in your quixotic life. To this day, I still feel your personality imprinted on many of the works I continue to play in orchestra. I will always be a devoted admirer of your genius. I hope to hear your unique brand of cello playing someday in heaven.