Steven Honigberg  

Homage to Rostropovich

Steven Honigberg
June 4, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Steven Honigberg was also hired by Mstislav Rostropovich to play in the National Symphony's cello section. Steve has written a beautiful tribute to Slava, full of loving memories of him both onstage and off. Reading Steve's tribute will give you a flavor of how Slava was larger-than-life yet so very loving of his friends.

- Yvonne Caruthers

In 1984 Leonard Rose called upon me at the end of my studies with him and Channing Robbins at the Juilliard School of Music to try out for a position as cellist with the National Symphony Orchestra. I agreed, with trepidation, knowing that I had only a short time to prepare. Nine days later, Mstislav Rostropovich hired me to become a member of his orchestra in Washington DC.

Throughout the coming decade, at a time when I was particularly impressionable, performing with the National Symphony in approximately 450 concerts to packed houses in every corner of the world, I marveled at Slava's ability to push music and musicians to their emotional limits. Audiences were swept up in the experiences. Amidst wild cheers and standing ovations, holding his heart and blowing kisses, Slava acknowledged adoring fans. In his prime years as conductor, Slava seemed able to bring music alive spontaneously. To this young musician, Slava had no limits. I readily accepted his huge personality, which infused every phrase of every piece.

He urged us on more than one occasion, with stirring pep talks about quality and artistry, to become the “greatest Russian orchestra” in the world. What we realized then and now was Slava's absolute firmness in his request. As a result, many of his unique interpretations with his powerful orchestra, recorded for posterity and presently stored in the National Symphony archives, will someday be uncovered. These are performances that sear the heart like no other conductor's, before or since. Under Slava's direction, we became conduits for the profound connection between conductor and composer.

In the early 1970s, an outspoken Rostropovich sent letters to major newspapers protesting the Soviet Union's exclusion of Nobel Prize recipient and friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn from the Union of Writers. Slava had maintained through the years that his defense of Solzhenitsyn was a statement of his belief in freedom as a spiritual necessity. With unwavering will, seemingly unaware of the possible consequences, he exposed his long-time hatred for tyranny and social injustice within the Soviet Union. For this courageous defense of his beliefs, the cellist was severely punished by the powerful Soviet Ministry of Culture. Concerts all over his homeland began to go to others. His livelihood was in jeopardy.

Then, in 1974, while Rostropovich and his wife, the renowned singer Galina Vishnevskaya, were traveling abroad on a concert tour, Soviet authorities deprived them of their passports: the Rostropoviches could not return home. In response to this tragic turn of events, western governments immediately welcomed these great artists outside their homeland, where they would eventually influence generations of music lovers. Their imposed exile made big news in the music world, and it didn't take long for Washington to reach out to Rostropovich. In 1977, Mstislav Rostropovich was appointed the NSO's fifth music director. In 1990, upon Rostropovich's return to his homeland after an excruciating sixteen-year exile, which among many personal losses barred him from attending the funeral of his beloved mentor and colleague Dmitri Shostakovich in 1975, the life-affirming Slava stated, "Conscience is my greatest creative power."

The NSO was with him on this historic occasion. Upon landing, we beheld a remarkable sight: thousands of people yelling and cheering, holding up scores of banners and signs greeting their beloved Maestro: WELCOME HOME, WE LOVE YOU SLAVA, YOU ARE OUR HERO. He was mobbed like a movie star as soon as he stepped off the airplane. In fact, it was difficult for any musician to get through the airport that day. Slava's return to Russia, captured on a videocassette entitled Soldiers Of Music, remains an inspiring tribute to this formidable artist.

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