Mstislav Rostropovich - Cellist – Conductor - 75th Birthday Concert – Barbican
Mstislav Rostropovich (just call me “Slava” he said to his wife, the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya when she was unable to make sense of his Christian name at their first meeting) had a superb 75thBirthday concert given in his honour at the Barbican on 27 March 2002. He has been “Slava” ever since – one of music’s best-loved cellists and conductors.
“Slava” was born on 27 March 1927 in Baku, Azerbaijan on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. He has a sister Veronica – an orchestral violinist – two daughters Olga and Elena and several dogs. His favourite cause is the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foudation, which helps to supply Russian children and hospital with food, equipment and medicine.
He started off as Russia’s “golden boy” (in fact he and his wife were the Soviet Union’s musical royalty, she regularly singing in recital with her husband at the piano). But by middle age his image was tarnished as he and his wife had sheltered the persecuted writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in their dacha outside Moscow. In 1970 he sent a letter to the Soviet newspapers deploring Solzhenitsyn’s treatment and the country’s curtailment of freedoms. He wrote, “every person must have the right to think and express views fairly and independently”. The Government gradually froze him out – he became a “non person” – and he was banished from musical life. They would give Galina no publicity, them in 1974 agreed to let the family live abroad.
Four years later Slava was stripped of his citizenship “for acts harmful to the prestige of the USSR”; so much for his award of the Stalin Prize! Once the Communists fell he finally revisited his homeland. Now, when not in a hotel or a plane, he lives in St. Petersburg. Away from his homeland during those years of exile he settled into long-term conducting posts.
Mainly a cellist, in 1975 he bought the “Duport Strad” a 1711 Stradivarius carrying the mark of Napoleon’s spur, which had scarped the body when the Emperor insisted on trying to hold it in 1812.
He has paid London several visits as a cellist leading up to and beyond his 75th birthday celebrations. A work deeply personal to him is Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. He was playing the work in Prague on his first international adventure in 1955 when he met his wife whom he married after a four-day courtship and them will celebrate their Golden Wedding in 2005!
At one pre-birthday concert he conducted a semi-staging of Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet by the Lithuanian Ballet. There was one unforgettable piece of choreography, but nothing to do with the dancers. During the final bars of music Rostropovich crept out of the orchestra pit and joined the hands of he ‘dead’ lovers like some benign archangel marrying them in heaven. Had any other conductor attempted such a gesture there might have been giggles. But because it was Slava even hardened critics felt a bit moist around the eyes.
The actual birthday concert on 27 March 2002 was a superb finale to all the celebrations. Slava sat as guest-of-honour whilst international soloists and conductors paid homage to him (the name ‘Slava’ means glory). Such names included pianists Martha Argeich and Eugenie Kissin; violinists Maxim Vengerov and Gidon Kramer; violist Yuri Bashnet and a whole roster of senior conductors including Ozawa, Mehta, Davis and Penderecki. Rostropovich brought the proceedings to a close with an emotional speech surrounded by friends and admirers on stage and the entire audience including the King and Queen of Spain.