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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Goodbye Maestro

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Though every human relationship is special, close, personal musical relationships are cherished.

For more than 11 years, from 1983 to 1995, I was at the piano playing recitals with the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. We performed in the United States, Asia, South America and Down Under. We made music together, sat in planes talking to each other, ate together and, though he did accuse me of drinking like a student, drank together.

Slava, as he affectionately urged us all to call him, was larger than life in almost every respect. He had more energy, more love, more anger, more concern and more insight than any other individual I knew. His death Friday took not only a gifted cellist and former National Symphony Orchestra conductor from the world but also a great humanitarian. He risked his life to show solidarity with the fledgling pro-democracy movement in Russia. And he was outspoken in his support of artistic and political freedom.

Slava's ability to maintain a staggering workload, along with his self-imposed discipline, was amazing. Yet, on tour at least, he celebrated life after every concert. He would keep restaurants open, dazzling the staff and chefs with his charm. Of course they would work after hours -- Slava and his entourage were hungry. Their reward was the honor he bestowed upon them with his presence, his stories, his financial generosity and his attentive listening.

Playing recitals with Slava was a great privilege. It was also intimidating. Not only did he know the cello part with an intimacy and authority born of close personal relationships with the likes of Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten, he also knew every note of the piano part by memory. It was a singular feeling in rehearsals to hear him shouting over our joint music-making the correct pitch names of inner notes in complex chords that I was playing incorrectly. The man had incredible ears!

But Slava's musical abilities are well known in Washington and elsewhere. I also got to know another Slava, one who would lug a liter of special vodka in his carry-on luggage for a month so that he could give it to me. He was a man who took time out of his busy schedule to come over to my new house in the Washington area to bestow upon it a special Russian blessing. He could no longer obtain the ceremonial items directly from the Soviet Union, but had to search in places such as Argentina.

Slava was responsible for my position as the pianist with the National Symphony Orchestra, in Washington and he knew that I had moved from a comfortable position in Philadelphia to play with his orchestra. Blessing our house and standing in our bare kitchen breaking bread and drinking vodka with us was one of the ways in which he showed me that he loved me and wanted my family to feel appreciated and happy.

It was not only his musical personality that motivated me and my colleagues to give all our strength to the service of music. His warmth, friendship and love of life, as well as his irrepressible joy in making music, invigorated us and will do so for the rest of our days.

In the 17 years that he led the National Symphony Orchestra, he made his colleagues aware of international standards in the world of classical music. Leading by example, he expected the very best from us and believed that we were capable of being compared favorably with the best in the world. Watching him work in master classes and in front of other symphony orchestras, I saw that his love of life and music was infectious. He inspired all whom he touched to greater heights of artistry and excitement. Our best memorial to him is to share with others the enthusiasm he so generously shared with us.

Lambert Orkis is principal keyboard of the National Symphony Orchestra. This comment appeared in The Washington Post.