Swans Commentary » swans.com May 7, 2007  



Remembering Mstislav Rostropovich


by Isidor Saslav & Arthur Lieb





"Music and art are a whole spiritual world in Russia. In Russia, when people go to a concert, they don't go to it as an attraction, as an entertainment, but to feel life."
—Mstislav Rostropovich (March 27, 1927 - April 27, 2007)


"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."
—Mstislav Rostropovich, in a 1970 open letter to Pravda in defense of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.



(Swans - May 7, 2007)   Arthur Lieb, who has written the following reminiscences about his work with Rostropovich during the conductor's years in Washington, comes from Detroit where he attended Cass Technical HS and Wayne State University, and was a librarian at the Library of Congress for many years. Arthur is now living in Boulder, Colorado.

Arthur Lieb reports:

The death of Mstislav Rostropovich this week brought back a whole lot of wonderful memories of one of my musical heroes. Allow me to share one with you. I am off to Russia on Monday and I hope to visit his grave site along with those of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

In the spring of 1979, The Washington Post published a small insert recruiting men to sing with the Oratorio Society of Washington (now the Washington Chorus). The choir wanted to enlarge its tenor and bass sections for its appearance with the National Symphony Orchestra at the annual 4th of July concert on the Washington, D.C. Mall.

Tenors are always in demand and very soon after my successful audition I attended the first rehearsal of Randall Thompson's Testament Of Freedom, a composition written for the University of Virginia Men's Glee Club, and which was our programmed piece. Thompson used words of Thomas Jefferson for the text. I had performed it once with the Wayne State University Men's Glee Club.

Rehearsals progressed well. I began to feel comfortable with the notes and my voice began to take some shape. The concert was to be conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra. I knew Rostropovich through his cello playing and had heard him perform Prokofiev's Symphony Concertante some time after arriving in Washington in 1964.

Back in college I became interested in the Soviet Union's control over the arts and I was well acquainted with the plights of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Their and other composers' works were banned from performance in Russia. This was a ban that Stalin initiated in the 1930s when he attended a performance of Shostakovich's opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. I did a term paper on the subject for a world history class and began to collect books on the subject. What I did not understand was how Shostakovich's new compositions were being performed and recorded in the West. I remember speculating with my faculty advisor about the ban because the Philadelphia Orchestra had just played and recorded a "new" symphony of Shostakovich. How did that come about? (More about that later.)

In the following years there was another political flurry when Nobel Prize winner Solzhenitsyn's work was banned from publication in Russia. Following that event Rostropovich and his wife, Bolshoi diva Galina Vishnevskaya, housed Solzhenitsyn in their country home for a long stay. And Rostropovich bravely wrote a letter criticizing the unqualified Communist bureaucrats who were making decisions on what gets played and what gets published. Pravda did not publish the letter but foreign newspapers did. More international publicity followed and the government denied foreign travel to Rostropovich and his wife. The travel ban was lifted in 1974 and while they were touring, Rostropovich and his wife were stripped of their Soviet citizenship.

In quick order he was appointed conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. (I've often speculated about this appointment. Was it a CIA plot to have a Soviet defector conducting the US capitol's symphony orchestra? If so, what a cultural coup!) When June turned into July I got more and more excited about the forthcoming concert. The concert is a prelude to the fireworks display on the nation's Mall. A white tent covered the outdoor stage that faced the west facade of the US Capitol Building about one block away. Attendance at these concerts always rivaled the best rock concerts.

But on the 3rd of July the weather forecast was promising. Rain was predicted and for a change, the Weather Bureau was accurate. The concert and the fireworks were postponed to the 5th. That day turned out to be absolutely beautiful. Seldom in D.C. was the humidity so low and the temperature was in the low 80s. It was a beautiful, cloudless evening.

The time finally came. We were seated on the stage and our performance began. About fifty feet in front of me stood one of the most remarkable 20th century musicians and humanitarians. His courage cost him his citizenship only months before. Between him and the chorus -- the great musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra. And there I was, standing in the tenor section, making music for the first time in fifteen years. An estimated 65,000 people sat on folding chairs and picnic blankets and behind them was the magnificent US Capitol, its marble dome reflecting a pink hue from the setting sun.

After the short orchestra introduction the choir made its first entrance: The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. Soon it became difficult for me to read the music from my tearing eyes. This simple celebration and the events surrounding it became a musical experience that I will never forget. After the concert most of us assembled behind the tent to watch the fireworks. I remember lighting a cigarette and noticing that next to me stood Rostropovich, beer in hand and watching the fireworks celebration of our nation's 203rd birthday. I wish I knew what his thoughts were at that moment.

I sang with the Oratorio Society for the next ten years. Many of our concerts were with the National Symphony Orchestra and Rostropovich conducted many of them. We made recordings of Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov and Shostakovich's Babi Yar Symphony. We performed Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and in 1982 the Te Deum and Lacrymosa of the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Near the end of his tenure with the National Symphony Orchestra, The Washington Post ran a story about Rostropovich. When Shostakovich's music was banned from performance, Rostropovich had easy access to the West, performing frequently in Europe and North America. On each journey he would pack several pages of a score of a new Shostakovich work. These were deposited somewhere and eventually made their way to a premiere performance, publication, and recording. Art triumphs!

My addition to Art's reminiscences:

I too worked with Rostropovich over the years. He performed the Prokofiev Symphony Concertante and the Dvorak Concerto with two of the orchestras I was concertmaster of, the Baltimore Symphony and the New Zealand Symphony. I also heard him and his long-time Washington D.C. collaborator, pianist Lambert Orkis, perform brilliantly an entire recital including an encore of Rostropovich's own composition at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts in 1990.

Rostropovich and I had established a cordial relationship in Baltimore and he was surprised and pleased to see me when he walked through the door of the rehearsal studio in New Zealand. His conductor there was Maxim Shostakovich, son of the composer, who had been traveling all over the world accompanying him with various orchestras. One could tell from the familiar, informal, sometimes gruff way Rostropovich treated Maxim that he had known his conductor since he was a baby, and that Maxim was not entirely pleased by this but was forced to put up with it.

During our time together in Baltimore I asked Rostropovich how he pronounced his name: roh-stro-PO-vich or ro-STRO-po-vich? He replied, "It depends which side of the Ural Mountains you come from." Which pronunciation was which, I can't quite remember.


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About the Author

Isidor Saslav on Swans (with bio).
Arthur Lieb is a retired librarian at the Library of Congress and part-time tenor, among many other musical activities, who lives in Boulder, Colorado.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art13/saslav04.html
Published May 7, 2007