Even by Russian standards, it was an emotional evening. Tears, champagne, kisses, Shostakovich, bear hugs and memories of the mother country.
The occasion was an all-Dmitri Shostakovich memorial concert presented by Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich. “In Moscow, there could never be such an evening,” the conductor beamed, “because all the best Russian artists are in America.” After the music ended, the famous cellist gave the Kennedy Center a bronze head of Shostakovich, his onetime teacher and friend who died in 1975.
The celebration continued in the maestro’s hotel suite the following day. Fellow Russians Mikhail Baryshnikov, the dancer, and poet Joseph Brodsky joined Rostropovich for tea and an impromptu jig.
Before leaving Russia two years ago, Rostropovich planned the concert program with the composer himself. “We had spent every birthday together for 15 years,” Rostropovich explains. “We had hoped to be together on this one.” Forsaking his customary role as solo cellist, Slava, as friends call him, labored in shirt-sleeves through two days of rehearsals to bring out the full genius of his old friend. “When the horn solo began in the Eighth Symphony, I had trouble holding back tears,” he says. “It is a scream for help—that’s what I wanted the public here to feel.” But, shrugs Rostropovich, “perhaps that is difficult to understand because people are happier here.” And so is he. “This evening serves to remind us that only in the West can we realize our dreams in art.” It was a bold statement from a concert artist who still travels on a Soviet passport. Next October he will begin a two-year assignment as musical director of the National Symphony. Earlier this year, without comment, the U.S.S.R. extended his visa until May 1977. “Following that I will apply again,” Rostropovich says flatly. “I am committed to contracts up to 1980. If they refuse, I will take steps to call worldwide attention to my right to travel and perform wherever asked. I hope I have many friends who will not leave me if I have troubles.”
The Soviet Union’s, and probably the world’s, greatest cellist was born into a distinguished musical family. Instructed at first by his father, young Slava at age 14 made a triple debut as cellist, conductor and composer. Two years later he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory—where he studied composition under Shostakovich—and eventually joined the Moscow Philharmonic as soloist. More than 20 modern composers, including Shostakovich, have dedicated compositions to him. “We had great privileges,” Rostropovich admits, “travel, money, prestige. But there were difficulties.”
Those “difficulties” involved the musician’s public defense in 1970 of dissident author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a friend then living in Rostropovich’s dacha near Moscow. Galina Vishnevskaya, the Bolshoi Opera’s leading soprano, who is Rostropovich’s wife, publicly agreed with her husband. Both were aware that they were jeopardizing their own careers and those of their two musician daughters. “After that our work was reduced to its most insignificant level,” says the cellist bitterly, referring to the Soviet Union’s two-year ban on foreign travel and its severe curtailment of their performances at home.
Rostropovich calls his reception in the U.S. “overwhelming.” But, like most exiles, he talks about returning to Russia “when artists are free.” He is unafraid of reprisals. “I can’t think of anything I have done that would embarrass them,” he says. “But it is too late for me to change. Today in my life I am afraid of nothing. It is a wonderful feeling…wonderful.”