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Mstislav Rostropovich, 80; Russian cello virtuoso, iconic political figure

Times Staff Writer

Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist and conductor considered by many to be one of the finest virtuosos of his instrument in the last half of the 20th century, has died. He was 80.

Rostropovich, who became a global political figure in the 1960s after the Soviet Union stripped him of his citizenship for protesting the government’s suppression of the arts, suffered from intestinal cancer. After initially being hospitalized in Paris, where he had a home, he returned to Russia in February. He died Friday in a Moscow hospital, his spokeswoman, Natalia Dollezhal, announced.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, speaking at a news conference Friday, extended his condolences and added, “This is a tremendous loss for Russian culture.”

Said Carl St.Clair, music director of the Pacific Symphony, which in 2002 hosted his last Southern California performance as a cellist: Rostropovich was “an ambassador ... someone who took his musical abilities and his virtuosity as a performer and utilized it to help mankind.”

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“The music world has lost a great spirit.”

Music lovers prized Rostropovich for his readily identifiable strength and beauty of tone. British cellist Steven Isserlis called him an “irresistibly powerful musician with an energy that can ignite an audience.” Listening to him, Isserlis said, “one feels that it is as if his life depends on each note; it is the urgency of his commitment that is so riveting.”

At the same time, he earned praise for greatly enlarging his instrument’s repertory. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has estimated that Rostropovich premiered and in many cases commissioned a third of the works making up the core of the cello repertory. Nearly 200 pieces were created for him by composers such as Benjamin Britten, Henri Dutilleux, Alberto Ginastera, Witold Lutoslawski, Olivier Messiaen and Alfred Schnittke.

“Cellists, myself included, are enormously grateful to Slava for the way he transformed the cello repertoire, developing new techniques through compositions he commissioned,” Ma said in a statement Friday. “He made things that were once thought impossible on the cello possible.”

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Rostropovich’s connection with Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich -- who wrote two cello concertos for him -- was particularly close. “He was the most important man in my life, after my father,” Rostropovich told the New York Times in 2006. “Sometimes when I’m conducting, I see his face coming to me. Sometimes it’s not really a happy face. I conduct maybe a bit too slow, so I conduct faster and the face disappears.”

He also had close friendships with Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev and British composer Britten, who wrote the solos in his “War Requiem” for Rostropovich’s wife, Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya.

“For me, the three kings of 20th century music are Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Britten,” Rostropovich told the Chicago Tribune in 2002.

Those composers wrote music for him that required tremendous virtuosity, said UC Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin, one of the world’s great authorities on Russian and Soviet music. Although Prokofiev and others sometimes wrote less strenuous versions of their compositions to encourage lesser players to perform them, “no self-respecting soloist would play something easier,” Taruskin said. “The level of cello technique has risen as a result of Mr. Rostropovich.”

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Rostropovich left a legacy of many recordings, spanning his entire career, including cello concertos and works by Dvorak, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Shostakovich, Haydn and Bach.

To millions of Russians and others around the world, he became an iconic freedom fighter as well. Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, speaking to The Times in 1990, said of Rostropovich that “he took a stand ... for the basic truths of life, and he did not compromise.”

A burly, emotional man, fond of giving generous bear hugs and kisses, Rostropovich was affectionately known by the nickname Slava, which means “glory” in Russian, and he was already an internationally renowned cellist in 1974, when he was still in his 40s. But in that year, he and his wife left the Soviet Union after four years of restricted concert activity and harassment because they had sheltered dissident novelist and Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., was among many orchestras that offered the couple support after their arrival in the West, and following an acclaimed debut conducting the group, Rostropovich became its music director in 1977. A year later, both he and Vishnevskaya, whom he had married in 1955, lost their Soviet citizenship for being “ideological renegades.” He held the National Symphony position for 17 years.

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Solzhenitsyn issued a statement Friday praising Rostropovich. “The departure of Mstislav Rostropovich is a bitter blow to our culture,” the author said. “They attempted to separate him from it by force when they deprived him of citizenship 30 years ago. I can testify how painful it was to him. Meanwhile he glorified Russian culture throughout the world. Farewell, my beloved friend!”

Rostropovich was born March 27, 1927, in Baku, an Azerbaijani city on the Caspian Sea. He demonstrated pronounced musical gifts as a child, proving equally adept at piano and cello. His father, a pupil of cellist Pablo Casals, taught him the latter instrument, and his mother gave him piano lessons, home-schooling him until he was 11. He also began composing.

At 16, he entered the Moscow Conservatory, where he studied composition with Prokofiev and Shostakovich. At 18, in 1945, he won the gold medal at the first Soviet competition for young musicians. He went on to earn the Lenin and Stalin prizes, among the Soviet Union’s highest honors, and to be named a People’s Artist.

Still, he began having run-ins with Communist authorities. When Shostakovich was officially denounced in the late 1940s, Rostropovich was one of the few musicians who continued to associate with the composer.

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The cellist also smuggled the manuscript of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (“Babi Yar”) to the West after Communist officials forbade its performance after its debut. The 1962 work takes its name from a poem by Yevtushenko attacking Soviet indifference to the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kiev in September 1941.

In 1970, Rostropovich and his wife drew particular rebuke not only for housing Solzhenitsyn but also for writing a letter to then-Soviet President Leonid I. Brezhnev protesting government restrictions on cultural freedom.

In response to the letter, which was published internationally, the government so severely curtailed concert dates, recording projects and tours for Rostropovich and his wife that he fell into depression and, according to her memoir, “Galina: A Russian Story,” turned to drink.

After Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) intervened, Soviet authorities granted the couple permission for an exit visa. In 1974 they received a two-year leave. Upon their arrival in London, the cellist was overwhelmed by invitations to play with orchestras all over the world.

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Although he made the National Symphony his orchestral base, he was a regular guest conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, London Symphony and London Philharmonic, among others, and continued to appear as a soloist in the U.S., Britain and Europe. For his last Southland performance as a cellist, he played the Dvorak concerto with the Pacific Symphony in 2002. He conducted the premiere of Deborah Drattell’s “Nicholas and Alexandra” at Los Angeles Opera in 2003.

Always an advocate for freedom, he also performed Bach at the Berlin Wall two days after it was opened in 1989.

As much as Rostropovich embraced the U.S., when perestroika gave him an opening in 1990, he returned to the Soviet Union. That year, his citizenship and all his medals and honorary titles were restored. The Soviet Union broke up a year later.

In July 1991, Rostropovich performed a concert in Prague to fulfill his 1968 promise to play there after the last Soviet soldier left Czechoslovakia. A month later, when he heard that hard-liners had put vacationing Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev under house arrest, seized power in Moscow and surrounded Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin in the republic parliament building, Rostropovich, at considerable danger to himself, raced from Paris to Moscow, sweet-talking his way past KGB guards at the airport, to stand by Yeltsin’s side.

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“There was no storming of the parliament building for one reason,” a Russian youth told Rostropovich, according to the London Sunday Times, shortly after the crowd toppled a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the KGB. “Because you were with us.”

Yeltsin died Monday in Moscow.

In September 1993, Rostropovich took the National Symphony to Red Square to perform works by Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky before a crowd of 100,000.

Rostropovich did not restrict his advocacy for artistic freedom to his homeland alone.

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In 1990, he appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee considering an extension of the National Endowment for the Arts to warn of the potential for “destructive, sometimes even catastrophic” results if the NEA were shackled artistically.

“I have been a victim of censorship -- both as a musician and as a person,” he said. “Coincidentally, there is now a successful battle in the Soviet Union against censorship. People have finally understood that censorship leads to the death of intellectual progress.

“Especially the United States, with its great number of diverse ethnic and religious groups, must preserve in an untouchable state the right of each person to express himself,” he said. “This is one of the greatest potentials of progress. In that lies the strength of a great country: the United States of America.”

Rostropovich was the recipient of more than 40 honorary degrees and more than 90 major awards in 25 countries, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Kennedy Center Honors in the United States.

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After returning to Russia, he dedicated himself to helping his country. He was influential in the restoration of the Moscow Conservatory and the rebuilding of Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow.

The Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation raised and sent more than $5 million in medicine, food and equipment to children’s hospitals and clinics in Russia.

In March, at a celebration at the Kremlin on his 80th birthday, Rostropovich was awarded the Order of Service to the Fatherland by Putin.

“I feel myself the happiest man in the world,” said Rostropovich, who is survived by his wife and two daughters.

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A funeral is scheduled for Sunday in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, and he will be interred at Novodevichy cemetery, where Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Yeltsin are buried.

chris.pasles@latimes.com Times staff writer David Holley contributed to this report from Moscow and staff writer Elaine Woo contributed from Los Angeles.

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Discography

Mstislav Rostropovich left a rich legacy. Here are a dozen of his most memorable recordings and collections:

Rostropovich: Master Cellist Legendary Recordings 1957-1978. Dvorak and Schumann cello concertos, other works. Berlin Philharmonic and Leningrad Philharmonic. Herbert von Karajan, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, conductors. (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Rostropovich: The Russian Years 1950-1974. Personal tapes of performances, including works by Beethoven, Britten, Prokofiev, others. Various orchestras. (EMI Classics)

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* Slava 75: The Official Birthday Edition. Four CDs. Works by Bach, Haydn, Dvorak, Shostakovich, others. Various orchestras. (EMI Classics)

* Bach: Solo Cello Suites. (EMI Classics)

* Beethoven: Triple Concerto; Brahms: Double Concerto. Cleveland Orchestra and Berlin Philharmonic. George Szell, Herbert von Karajan, conductors. (BBC Legends)

* Dvorak and Saint-Saens: Cello Concertos. London Philharmonic. Carlo Maria Giulini, conductor. (Testament)

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* Gubaidulina: “The Canticle of the Sun.” London Symphony. Rostropovich, conductor. (EMI Classics)

* Messiaen: “Concert a Quatre.” Bastille Opera Orchestra. Myung-Whun Chung, conductor. (Deutsche Grammophon)

* Shostakovich: Cello Concertos Nos. 1 and 2. Moscow State Philharmonic. David Oistrakh, conductor. (Audio CD)

* Shostakovich: Complete Symphonies. National Symphony. Rostropovich, conductor. (Teldec)

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* Shostakovich: “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” London Philharmonic. Rostropovich, conductor. (EMI Great Recordings of the Century)

* Tchaikovsky: “Rococo Variations.” London Symphony. Colin Davis, conductor. (BBC Legends)

Chris Pasles


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