Honoring a Great Musician

The musicians of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic had just finished rehearsing Dmitry Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony with Mstislav Rostropovich, and some of them were backstage having a smoke. "You know what happened once to Shostakovich's son Maxim?" said a viola player. "He came to Leningrad to conduct a concert, but he arrived at the airport a day early -- his visa wasn't valid till the following day. So at first they wouldn't let him in.

"Then they took him into an office and sat him down at a desk, and the chief hood said: "Listen, Maxim, there are any number of Shostakoviches. How do we know you're the one you say you are?" Then he drummed his fingers and hummed quietly: 'Dah-dah-dah-dee-dah-dah.' Maxim immediately went: 'Dah-dah-dah-dah-dee-dee.' 'O.K.,' said the hood. 'You must be the old man's boy.' And he stamped his visa and let him in."

"And you know what happened to Slava [Rostropovich]?" said a bassoonist after the laughter had died down. "He arrived in Moscow immediately after the coup in 1991 without any kind of visa at all, just the document from Monaco that he always travels on. 'Ah,' said the border guard, looking at it, 'you must be here for the Congress of Compatriots.' 'Absolutely,' said Slava. Then the guard said: 'F--- the Congress of Compatriots,' and went straight to the barricades!"

Slava Rostropovich, now in St. Petersburg for an eight-concert celebration of Shostakovich's music, has been called the world's greatest cellist for more years than he cares to remember. He made his debut playing the Saint-Sa‘ns concerto 47 years ago in Slaviansk; he was accepted into the Moscow Conservatory three years later. And from that point on, he was picked up and passed (hand to hand, like a special proprietary treasure) from composer to composer -- from Nikolai Miaskovsky to Reinhold Gli?re to Sergei Prokofiev to Shostakovich (who was his teacher in orchestration) -- as the best possible interpreter (and often dedicatee) of each man's work. He won a Stalin prize at the age of 24. He became a conductor -- he regularly conducted at the Bolshoi Opera; and he married the company's great soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya, in 1955.

He had already found a place, however, in the authorities' bad books by loudly championing the work of Prokofiev and Shostakovich when it was denounced as "formalist." And he compounded this sin in the late '60s and early '70s, by giving yearly winter sanctuary in his Zhukova dacha to that dangerous pariah, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Concerts and foreign tours dried up as a result; he was eventually forced into exile; and in March 1978, by which time he'd taken over the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, his and his wife's Russian citizenship was stolen from them by a single stroke of a malign bureaucratic pen. He later bought an apartment in Finland -- to join his other apartments and houses in Paris and London, Washington and Lausanne -- just so he could look across the water at Russia whenever he felt the yen.

"I still have it," he cheerfully confesses after the rehearsal. "The only thing I have given up is my beloved National Orchestra. And that's good. It means I have no obligations. I do only what is interesting for me as musician. I can listen to my musical wishes."

More and more, it seems, his "musical wishes" have to do with Russia. He has always been eager to introduce Russian music to the West: he's recently conducted premieres (in Stockholm and Vienna, respectively) of Rodion Shchedrin's opera "Lolita" and Alfred Schnitke's "Gesualdo;" and a concert by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic will open this year's version of his annual music festival at Evian.

He is also doing everything he can to promote Russian music at home. Last fall, he conducted Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mstensk at the Mariinsky, giving the proceeds to the building of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. This year, he is president of a cello festival to be held at the beginning of July in St. Petersburg. In 1998, in Samara, he will conduct the premiere of Sergei Slaninsky's "Ivan Grozny". The list -- to say nothing of the master classes he gives everywhere he goes in Russia, and the charities he quietly gives money to -- could go on and on.

He's an extraordinary man, a true artist-as-conscience: benign, funny, open. And huge demands are still made of him, despite the fact that he's almost 70. "So I've taught myself to sleep for just four hours a night," he says. "At first it was hard. But you never know how powerful you are, even an ordinary person like me. Now it's much easier."