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#17 - JRL 7033
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
January 25, 2003
The glory of Russia
Soon to turn 75, the human cyclone that is cellist and conductor Mstislav
Rostropovich still shows no signs of slowing down

TORONTO -- Even heroes get stuck in traffic. This seemed a good thought to
cling to, as I waited a long hour at Toronto's Pearson International
Airport for Mstislav Rostropovich to clear immigration.

Rostropovich is a genuine hero of the Soviet era and what followed, having
stuck up publicly for his friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn when the wrath of
the Kremlin was upon him, and having flown to Moscow from the West in 1991
to support Boris Yeltsin, who at the time was facing down an attempted
coup. He has lived his life as though borders and limits to freedom don't
exist, which hasn't exempted him from sometimes having to accept that they do.

He's also a human cyclone. Rostropovich turns 75 in March, but hasn't
slowed his pace one bit. He's still performing and conducting, on two or
three continents, including the western edge of North America, where today
and tomorrow he plays with and conducts the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra in
two different programs. He's able and willing to make an 11-hour journey to
do so, with a break in Toronto to give the umpteenth interview of his long

His generosity is legendary. During a previous concert visit to Canada, he
discovered that it was impresario Walter Homburger's 40th birthday.

"He was at dinner at our home and when he heard that it was my birthday he
took off his shirt and insisted on giving it to me as his present,"
Homburger said. "That was on January 22nd. It was then also very cold, and
he had only his jacket to cover himself on his way back to his hotel."

But you can't give what you don't have, and with the cellist still stuck
after two hours in a huge line at immigration, his New York agent called me
to say that the interview was cancelled.

Rostropovich has been in the news for over half a century. He was a star in
Russia almost from the moment he arrived from his native Baku (in
present-day Azerbaijan) at the Moscow Conservatory, where he became the
favourite cellist of Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich, both of whom
wrote pieces for him. In 1956, he played in New York and London, and
defined new levels of prowess and energy in all the music he played.

Several generations of cellists have since grown up in his thrall, though
none has had such an impact on the music of his time. He has premiered more
than 120 new works, many of them written for him by the likes of Benjamin
Britten, Krzysztof Penderecki and Arnold Schnittke.

He'll even take a new piece on a first date. Next fall, he makes his debut
at the Los Angeles Opera, in the premiere production of Nicholas and
Alexandra, an opera by American composer Deborah Drattell. It probably
helps that Placido Domingo, the company's artistic director, has agreed to
sing the part of Rasputin.

Rostropovich hasn't lived in Russia since 1974, when the Brezhnev regime
lin ended a tense standoff over the Solzhenitsyn affair by allowing the
cellist and his family to fly to Britain for a two-year residency. Four
years later, while Rostropovich was in the United States, his passport was

He led the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington for 17 years, was a
co-director of the Aldeburgh Festival started by his friends Britten and
Peter Pears, and keeps places in Paris and in London, where he is a kind of
conductor-godfather to the London Symphony Orchestra. "I live everywhere,"
he's fond of saying. "Paris is where I change my suitcases."

Nomad as he is, he remains a willing symbol of Russian culture, and a
leading interpreter of Russian music. His programs for Vancouver are
entirely Russian, except for Bernstein's Slava! A Political Overture, which
was written for him. His performances last year with the LSO of
Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 made most London critics' lists as among the
best concerts of the year. The subsequent CD, on the orchestra's own LSO
Live label, received two Grammy nominations.

Rostropovich retains the grit of a man who has never gone along with things
that he believes to be unfair or unjust. He recently signed a public letter
appealing for an end to political kidnappings in Colombia. Last spring,
when Charles Dutoit quit l'Orchestre Symphonique de Montral after a public
rebuke by a musicians' representative, Rostropovich showed his support by
cancelling his appearances with the orchestra. The shows were to have taken
place earlier this week.

"The important thing is to have a clear conscience," he told The Guardian
in an interview. "Because you are the only one who knows for sure what you
did, nobody else does. You and God."

If God has a favourite cellist, it's probably Rostropovich -- whose
nickname Slava is also the Russian word for "glory." Hallelujah to that.

Mstislav Rostropovich conducts the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the
Orpheum Theatre tonight, and performs as cello soloist with the VSO and
Bramwell Tovey tomorrow.

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