A Cellist's Emotional Pitch

For Mstislav Rostropovich -- cellist, conductor, pianist, patriot -- emotion is everything. "Some people say I turn the Washington National Symphony into Russian orchestra," he says backstage at the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in his idiosyncratic English.

"But maybe this is essential difference between American and Russian approach. There, maybe someone in orchestra play music emotionally, but he make influence for soul after he play. Here it is opposite. We must first emotion. I prepare myself -- my whole body -- emotionally before I start.

When I play Shostakovich, for example, I come on to the stage much faster: with Schumann, much more slowly. I have to find correct emotional pitch. And I think this is true of all Russian musicians. Emotionally, they say more to the music. Americans maybe have more perfection, yes. Take Chicago -- perfect orchestra. But think, maybe, of Boston -- perfect, too, but maybe just little bit warmer. Me, I like to think this is influence of Kussevitsky [the Boston Symphony's one-time Russian conductor] who survive the ghost with them now in how they play.

No, yes, maybe I, too, have little bit Russian influence with National Orchestra. And I hope the memory of me stays for another conducting to find. Maybe I teach the musicians a little bit to listen to their emotions, like Kussevitsky did."

He laughs. "You know, when I first perform with Lenny Bernstein, just before we go onto stage, he say: "First you have to do this.' And he put his cufflinks in my face, you know, for me to kiss them. I say: 'What is this?' So he say. 'They belonged to Kussevitsky.' So, well, of course, I kiss them!"

For him, this location of the emotional pitch of a piece is absolutely key. True musicianship, he believes, lies in a sort it of trance-like emotional consonance with the music and its composer, a consonance in which the musician is a true vessel for the music, as a priest is for the message of Christ: a telephone line of a kind; a vibrating, message-carrying wire that links past and present.

It's a theme he comes back to again and again in the dressing room at the Philharmonic. When talking briefly about Viktoria Mullova, for example -- a hugely talented violinist whom he helped greatly, like so many other Russians, after she defected to the West -- he says: "She is much more violinist than musician, I think. She is absolute portrait of Leonid Kogan. You know I play trio with Kogan and Gilels, yes? Well, Kogan was fantastic; he could play anything. But he was very questionable musician. Gilels was twice better musician than Kogan, though Kogan was extraordinary as violinist, extraordinary."All this is said without any rancor, but with great affection and laughter. It's simply the truth as he sees it. He makes no claims for himself. Indeed he says he has yet to become as fine a cellist as his father, a teacher of music -- like his mother-- who died when he was 14. "Oh yes!" he exclaims. "He was miracle cellist! I can still hear his tone. Wonderful! I think I am really not there so good yet. And you know, he wrote many compositions, a cello concerto, a piano concerto, which I knew when I was very young. Now I think I will look at them again. Perhaps I will have new visions."

This new vision he feels he might have is to do, I think, with coming back to Russia, to the language, to old friends and to his sister -- who was denied permission to travel to the West, as a musician with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, during all the years of his enforced exile. Though he's booked, he says, to the year 2000, more and more of his time these days -- now that he's given up his beloved National Orchestra -- seems to be devoted to Russian projects to promoting new Russian operas -- the sort of thing the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi should be doing (but, to his irritation and despair, aren't) -- and to encouraging young Russian musicians.

"Young generation," he booms, striking the table, "are absolute hope of future. They are full of energy, but is very difficult time for them. So I give master classes, help teach, whenever I can. Also we have cello festival here at beginning of July, with fifteen cellists, four evenings with orchestra. I am president -- very important. And I want to have big group of young cellists, 200 maybe -- maybe we get bigger stage -- 400, even 500," which is exactly the sort of event he loved to organize in Russia before he was so rudely interrupted by Brezhnev.

He'll be 70 in a couple of weeks, but he has no intention of stopping -- ever. He says: "I tell my wife: If I die in Paris, she is immediately to take me to airport, to Concorde. That way, I get to New York two hour before I die!" And he laughs and throws open his hands.