Mstislav Rostropovich died April 26. The news came as a shock, even though we knew he had been struggling for many weeks. When we heard in February that he had been given last rites in Paris, it seemed the end was imminent. It was arranged for him to be flown to Moscow, and that seemed another sign that his eventful life was coming to a close, since he wanted to be buried in Moscow. Those of us who were waiting for more news kept our fingers crossed that he would live to see his 80th BD, and we breathed a sigh of relief when he did, and when it was lavishly observed at the Kremlin. Not long after the celebrations he re-entered the hospital, and this time there was no recovery.
I was hired by Slava (as he was universally called, fittingly, since “Slava” means “glory” in Russian) in 1978, one of the first cellists he hired for the National Symphony Orchestra. (He also hired David Budd, a fellow Eastman alum, at the same audition. David left the NSO after a few years to join the SF Opera.) I worked with Slava until he left us in 1994, a total of 16 years.
The first months I played with the NSO were heady indeed: Slava hosted the newly-hired members of the NSO (all 17 of us!) at his apartment for casual get-togethers; he invited us to play at monthly master classes; his dressing room was always open for us to visit backstage; he took a real interest in all aspects of our lives. When our probationary period was over Slava made an announcement to the orchestra, expressing his wish that now we should each become “true artists,” not worried any longer about making mistakes, but committed to making great music. Many of us from that “class of 1978” are still in the NSO, nearly 30 years later.
What was it like to work with Slava? As a cellist (myself) playing for the best cellist in the world (Slava) it should have been intimidating, but it rarely was. On one occasion I asked if I could play the Frank Bridge Sonata for him, a work he had recorded with Benjamin Britten. We met in his dressing room at the Kennedy Center before a concert. I brought my pianist and a friend, so there were just four of us in the room. He listened, he criticized, he suggested changes, he sang along, he made corrections…but it was like having a lesson with your favorite teacher. He wasn’t interested in anything except that the ideas in the music should come out. He didn’t make me feel inadequate, but of course I was always aware that he could play it much better than I would ever dream of playing it.
As a member of the cello section I felt that he was often frustrated with the idea of an orchestra. For him it was a giant instrument that he wanted to play. That’s not possible, so conducting was the closest he could get to “playing” the orchestra. He conceived of every instrument in terms of the colors it added to the sound, and he told stories to illustrate his thoughts about those colors. “Muz be like angels singing,” he would say softly and gently, stroking his balding head. The images the orchestra still remembers were usually more powerful: “like fork in brain!” or even “muz be so loud two old ladies in audience die of heart attack!”
I said earlier it was rarely intimidating to play for Slava. There were exceptions. We’d be playing Tchaikovsky, or Prokofiev, or Strauss, something where the page was black with notes, and suddenly he would stop and let the baton fall to the score and look directly at one of us and say, “Better you not shift; stay in fourth position.” The person in question would quickly try to figure out which particular group of notes was being addressed. Slava would wait and say, “My dearest, I understand zis problem as I play a little bit myself.” Then he would start again and stare at the same person to see if the change was made. If it was, he’d catch their eye and give a small smile and continue with the rehearsal. If you didn’t make the change…well, who’s going to argue with the greatest cellist in the world about a choice of fingerings?
One of the biggest projects we worked on with Slava was to record the Shostakovich symphonies. He told us that the last time he ever saw the composer, he had promised Shostakovich that he would record all the symphonies. It’s easy to promise something like that, much harder to make it happen. First of all, recordings cost money, lots of money. Then you have to have a company that is willing to devote time and energy to the project—the entire project, over several years, not just one or two symphonies. And of course he had to have the orchestras to make it happen. Yes, orchestras plural. He ended up recording the cycle with the NSO and the London symphony. Most people are lucky if they get to record a few works in their entire career (especially these days), but Slava’s recording projects were ongoing and numerous.
For Slava’s 60th BD celebrations, in 1987, he set a Herculean task for himself: perform the entire cello/orchestra repertoire. In Washington he played 3 concertos on Thursday night, let’s say Haydn C major, Saint-Saens, and Dvorak. On Friday night he would play Dvorak and Rococo Variations. On Saturday night he would play Shostakovich 1st and Schumann concertos. Then the following week he would go to NY and repeat the feat—with different concertos each night of the week, but not repeating the ones he had just played in Washington. In London the following week, then Paris, then Tokyo, then Sydney—I don’t know how many times or in what cities he repeated this task, but he basically played the entire cello repertoire that anyone ever plays—and he did it all singlehandedly, from memory, and they were good performances. They weren’t so-so, they weren’t merely adequate, they were performances from someone who had been playing these pieces for decades, who had lived with them, thought about them, knew what worked and what didn’t.
Those of us who are performers were staggered by this display of – what? virtuosity? No, it went way beyond that. Memory? Yes, but it’s hard to comprehend how much he played from memory. The Encyclopedia Britannica comes on 4 CDs (2007 version) or one DVD. Yet one CD only holds an hour’s worth of music, such as Beethoven’s 9th symphony. During the birthday celebrations, Slava was playing 90 minutes or more of music every night, 3 nights a week—close to the amount of information in the entire Encyclopedia Britannica! He did that several weeks in a row! I told a non-musical friend, “It’s like memorizing an entire law library”—that was the best analogy I could come up with.
He wasn’t “just” playing the cello parts either—he also knew the orchestra parts from memory for each concerto. He had them in his ear (perfect pitch) and could give you the names of the notes if you asked him what they were (for each instrument). If someone played a wrong note in rehearsal he would know instantly which instrument was playing the wrong note—without consulting the score.
His gifts didn’t end there. Slava was a wonderful pianist as well as cellist. He accompanied his wife on many occasions, and when he did, he played from memory. When he taught master classes he would go to the piano to play accompaniments (from memory) and illustrate chords and harmonies. He rarely looked at the music to make his observations—he could reconstruct scores in his mind from hearing them. I have no idea how it feels to be able to do things like that: his “powers” seem as magical to me as defying gravity.
He often told us that when he was a student he wanted to be a composer, but realized that if he had pursued composition he would not have been “best in the world,” so he left composition behind. I always wondered if he had under-rated his compositional gifts, but I doubt it; he was totally honest about those sorts of things. His compositional training came into play when it came to looking at new scores and understanding what the composer intended musically, and I believe it frustrated him to not have the same “power” himself. He told of taking a student composition to Prokofiev or Shostakovich and either of them would make a small correction that would give the piece a special touch—but he could never do that on his own.
When the NSO was in Russia on tour we played through one of Schnittke’s last symphonies (I think it was the 6th) and we were astounded when Slava suggested a huge cut in the piece. He and Schnittke had a rapid-fire exchange in Russian…and Schnittke ended up agreeing with Slava. Both men had complete respect for each other, there was no animosity involved, and we all felt that the right musical decision had been made, even though it must have been somewhat painful for the composer.
The stories! Where does one begin? As soon as you made his acquaintance you were immersed in the endless stream of stories that he told and that were told about him. Slava coming onstage in SF dressed in a pink tutu for Isaac Stern’s BD party….he and Richter dressing as crocodiles for a party in Moscow in midwinter….having a bow autographed by Picasso….he was amused by life, he took joy in life, and in all things both large and small. He took childish delight in honors bestowed upon him. One day he burst into rehearsal with good news—one of the young movie stars (of that year) had named him as “most desirable.” He often told the story of his mother’s long gestation—10 months he claimed, and he said he asked her, “If God take so long to make hands, why not make good face too?” After all those years, some young thing thought he was “desirable”!
Slava never got used to the idea that rehearsals had to end by a set time. That was “un-artistic” from his point of view. To compensate for having to end at a specific time, he would often give us a speech at the end of rehearsal, running past the ending time, but since we weren’t playing, no one could officially object (and it would have been rude to leave). The subject of those speeches was usually the same: Quality. I wish now I had written down what he said, to have a more permanent record of it, but the gist was that Quality is the most important thing we offer to an audience. They don’t care if you are tired, or if your car broke down. They want to be moved by the music; they want to feel the passion you have for the music.
The words genius and artist are freely used today, often to describe people who are neither. Slava was both.
From Marcia Farabee, Librarian at the NSO:
My favorite memory?? That would be how he called me into his dressing room one night on tour and told me that I could play Shosty 5 with the orchestra the next night. I will never, never, never forget how that touched me. I am not sure Peter Haase (note of explanation from Yvonne: Peter is one of the NSO violinists) will ever recover from having to sit with me (!), but it was the highlight of my professional career.
The other thing about Slava that always impressed me: he always saw right through phony people. Although he would be gracious and kind while speaking to them, he would also give me a wink when he knew they were of no substance. I really admired him for that. I am sure I have a million more, so stay tuned!
For more memories of Mstislav Rostropovich, visit http://kcswiki.pbwiki.com/In%2520Memoriam%2520Slava