- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 28, 2007

With the death of legendary Russian cellist and former National Symphony Orchestra conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow yesterday at age 80, the world lost an artistic giant and one of the great champions of freedom in the 20th century.

A connoisseur’s musician, Mr. Rostropovich was a cellist of the old style, a genuine romanticist whose only equal at the height of his career was Britain’s Jacqueline du Pre, whose own time on stage was cut short by multiple sclerosis.

Mr. Rostropovich’s artistry was focused and enhanced by his increasing presence on the world’s political stage. Coming of age as a musician in the Soviet Union as the repressive Stalinist era neared its end, he witnessed firsthand the oppression of Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich. The composers’ lives and careers were constantly at risk for daring to stretch their modernist wings under a regime that regarded classical music as merely another propaganda tool for spreading the communist revolution.

Taking advantage of the modest liberalization in the Soviet regime that occurred after the accession of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s eventual successor, Mr. Rostropovich increasingly performed in the West in the 1950s and 1960s to great acclaim. Recordings of his performances routinely received rave reviews. Rapidly becoming known as a world-class artist, he proved a tremendous draw on the concert stages of the world.

Mr. Rostropovich favored the Russian and the Romantic repertoire, but was also passionate about encouraging contemporary composers, many of whom became his friends. They returned the favor, honoring Mr. Rostropovich by composing pieces especially for him or dedicating new pieces to him.

Both Mr. Rostropovich and his wife, famed soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, were popular in their own country and were treated by the Soviet government as honored artistic elites. But Mr. Rostropovich fell into disfavor in the 1970s for championing Russian dissident novelist and intellectual Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose fiercely anti-communist works were instrumental in exposing the U.S.S.R’s political prison system.

Mr. Rostropovich’s vigorous defense of the truth earned him the cold shoulder of the authorities and diminishing performance opportunities. When the Rostropoviches were given short-term visas to leave the Soviet Union in 1974, they took the hint, escaping into Western exile.

Seemingly out of the blue, not long after he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra for the first time in 1975, the world received the news that Mr. Rostropovich would soon become the NSO’s music director and conductor. At the height of the Cold War, the appointment of an esteemed Russian dissident to head up a major symphony orchestra in the capital of the free world was nothing less than a political sensation and a perhaps unintended American propaganda coup, coming as it did on the heels of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Rostropovich’s star power revived the NSO’s fortunes as well as its box office. But his conducting won mixed reviews during his long tenure as music director (1977-1994). Not surprisingly, he seemed most adept conducting the Russian repertoire as well as the work of contemporary composers whom he had championed. Other works, however, often seemed sloppy and ill- or incompletely-rehearsed. Nevertheless, members of the NSO seemed to love playing for him, perhaps honored by his presence as well as the positive, energetic attitude he projected.

Audiences of the time rejoiced in the NSO’s revitalized repertoire and enjoyed their proximity to Mr. Rostropovich’s radiant celebrity. He was frequently referred to — often by people who didn’t even know him — by his nickname “Slava.” This is Russian for “glory,” but also alludes to a ringing chorus in Modest Mussorgsky’s classic opera “Boris Godunov,” during which the triumphant new czar succeeds to the Russian throne.

Mr. Rostropovich, Washington’s new musical “czar,” was exuberant yet self-effacing. He clearly enjoyed his artistic and political freedom in the American capital and was happy to exploit it in a positive way, no longer fearing to express his dissatisfaction with and contempt for the Soviet Union’s aging and declining communist masters and his country’s lack of intellectual freedom and human rights.

Before Washington’s love affair with Mr. Rostropovich had a chance to wear off, the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent decline and fall of the Soviet Union helped lead him to conclude that it was time to return home and help give birth to a new Russia for the 21st century. Although the current state of affairs in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is probably not what Mr. Rostropovich had hoped for, he nonetheless ended his days back home in Moscow.

Here in Washington, Mr. Rostropovich will be fondly remembered as not only a radiant musician and champion of intellectual integrity, but also as the man who brought joy to a struggling orchestra and a national capital devastated by the twin catastrophes of Vietnam and the ruined presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

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