Yvonne Caruthers  

Tribute to Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927-2007

Yvonne Caruthers
May 1, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Since his death last week, thousands of words have been written about our beloved Slava Rostropovich. Since I worked closely with him for 16 years, I wanted to write a more personal view of him for Polyphonic. What follows is just that: strictly personal. It is by no means comprehensive, as I could reminisce about him for hours. I apologize if some of what I remember is not what someone else remembers, and I invite others to please write to Polyphonic and add your memories to this tribute.

- Yvonne Caruthers

Mstislav Rostropovich died April 26. The news came as a shock, even though we knew he had been struggling for many weeks. When we heard in February that he had been given last rites in Paris, it seemed the end was imminent. It was arranged for him to be flown to Moscow, and that seemed another sign that his eventful life was coming to a close, since he wanted to be buried in Moscow. Those of us who were waiting for more news kept our fingers crossed that he would live to see his 80th BD, and we breathed a sigh of relief when he did, and when it was lavishly observed at the Kremlin. Not long after the celebrations he re-entered the hospital, and this time there was no recovery.

I was hired by Slava (as he was universally called, fittingly, since “Slava” means “glory” in Russian) in 1978, one of the first cellists he hired for the National Symphony Orchestra. (He also hired David Budd, a fellow Eastman alum, at the same audition. David left the NSO after a few years to join the SF Opera.) I worked with Slava until he left us in 1994, a total of 16 years.

The first months I played with the NSO were heady indeed: Slava hosted the newly-hired members of the NSO (all 17 of us!) at his apartment for casual get-togethers; he invited us to play at monthly master classes; his dressing room was always open for us to visit backstage; he took a real interest in all aspects of our lives. When our probationary period was over Slava made an announcement to the orchestra, expressing his wish that now we should each become “true artists,” not worried any longer about making mistakes, but committed to making great music. Many of us from that “class of 1978” are still in the NSO, nearly 30 years later.

Slava's hand Slava’s left hand. He was showing my daughter that he could play octave trills on the piano. “Not even Richter do zis,” he told us proudly. (click to enlarge)

What was it like to work with Slava? As a cellist (myself) playing for the best cellist in the world (Slava) it should have been intimidating, but it rarely was. On one occasion I asked if I could play the Frank Bridge Sonata for him, a work he had recorded with Benjamin Britten. We met in his dressing room at the Kennedy Center before a concert. I brought my pianist and a friend, so there were just four of us in the room. He listened, he criticized, he suggested changes, he sang along, he made corrections...but it was like having a lesson with your favorite teacher. He wasn’t interested in anything except that the ideas in the music should come out. He didn’t make me feel inadequate, but of course I was always aware that he could play it much better than I would ever dream of playing it.

As a member of the cello section I felt that he was often frustrated with the idea of an orchestra. For him it was a giant instrument that he wanted to play. That’s not possible, so conducting was the closest he could get to “playing” the orchestra. He conceived of every instrument in terms of the colors it added to the sound, and he told stories to illustrate his thoughts about those colors. “Muz be like angels singing,” he would say softly and gently, stroking his balding head. The images the orchestra still remembers were usually more powerful: “like fork in brain!” or even “muz be so loud two old ladies in audience die of heart attack!”

I said earlier it was rarely intimidating to play for Slava. There were exceptions. We’d be playing Tchaikovsky, or Prokofiev, or Strauss, something where the page was black with notes, and suddenly he would stop and let the baton fall to the score and look directly at one of us and say, “Better you not shift; stay in fourth position.” The person in question would quickly try to figure out which particular group of notes was being addressed. Slava would wait and say, “My dearest, I understand zis problem as I play a little bit myself.” Then he would start again and stare at the same person to see if the change was made. If it was, he’d catch their eye and give a small smile and continue with the rehearsal. If you didn’t make the change...well, who’s going to argue with the greatest cellist in the world about a choice of fingerings?

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