It was an excellent article in today New York Times:
Remembering Rostropovich, the Master Teacher
By MICHAEL WHITE
IT is a truth upheld by many in the music world if not universally acknowledged that pianists are neurotic, violinists vain and cellists ... well, cellists are nice. Straightforward. Sociable. They’ll tell you so themselves.
Whereas other solo-status instrumentalists tend to come together only in competitions, cellists swarm like bees at big international meetings. The Kronberg Festival in Germany is one. And for the last two decades another has been the Manchester International Cello Festival, where Ralph Kirshbaum, the American head of the cello department at the Royal Northern College of Music, has pulled in star players every two of three years to perform, teach, talk and stay up until 3 a.m. comparing Strads, spikes and Piatigorsky stories.
Last weekend the festival was back in business, with Yo-Yo Ma, Mischa Maisky, Colin Carr, Thomas Demenga, Natalia Gutman and some 40 other participants jostling like angels on a pinhead in endurance concerts that began at 7 and ran till after midnight. Students, amateurs and aficionados packed the halls. Good times were had.
But there was a ghost at this feast, benign but insistent. It was the ghost of Mstislav Rostropovich, who had planned to be in Manchester too but died the week before.
From the beginning Mr. Kirshbaum said he didn’t want the festival to turn into a wake; the scheduled theme was English music, and it wasn’t to be hijacked by this death. But as Mr. Ma said of Mr. Rostropovich in an interview: “There can scarcely be a cellist here, or anywhere, who wasn’t affected by him. He was supreme. He was loved. He was a wake-up call for every one of us. You can’t get away from that.”
And there was scarcely a cellist of distinction here who didn’t claim to be some kind of student of the great man, or a student of a student. Most impressive was the number who had actually participated in his legendary classes in the 1960s at the Moscow and Leningrad conservatories: Ms. Gutman, Mr. Maisky, David Geringas, Karine Georgian, Ivan Monighetti. An elite corps, they were honored here like surviving next of kin.
“It’s true,” Ms. Gutman said. “We were his family. We have lost a father.” And their collective testimony made it clear that, in the words of Mr. Maisky: “He was a great cellist but perhaps an even greater teacher. This was his ultimate gift.”
For obvious reasons Mr. Rostropovich’s teaching was less well known to the world than his concert work. But a biography just published in Britain, by Elizabeth Wilson, herself a Moscow Conservatory student from the ’60s, emphasizes its importance. And in hindsight it can be seen as central to his sense of self as a musician.
Mr. Rostropovich began to teach at 15, taking over from his father, a distinguished cello teacher who died young. Then for 25 years, from 1948 until he left Russia in 1974, he taught in both Moscow and Leningrad, with a particularly famous class in Moscow: Class 19.
At a time in the Soviet Union when speech was guarded, opinions were monitored and life was gray, Mr. Rostropovich’s Class 19 was provocative, energized and, Mr. Geringas said, “a ray of light, opening up possibility.” His students called him Sunshine. And 40 years later they talk of the experience as if it had happened yesterday, with vivid recall of events and recurring images of natural upheaval — torrent, hurricane, tsunami — to describe the impact on their lives.
Less closely involved students, the ones who knew Mr. Rostropovich only through master classes in the West, tend to describe his influence on them in technical terms. Mr. Ma talks of “the will to make a phrase last”; Mr. Kirshbaum of “the plasticity of a left hand moving so fast it encompassed new levels of difficulty”; and Mr. Demenga of “a bowing arm so agile it was like a snake, the bow a natural continuance of the arm, flesh melting into wood.”
But for those who were with him in Russia in the ’60s the memories are more emotional, overwhelmed by the huge, driven, scrutinizing personality that swept them up and left them reeling.
“Such power, such intensity,” Ms. Gutman said. “He could look at a person and see so clearly what was hidden within. It was the genius to awaken genius in others.”
For Mr. Maisky it was a question of attitude: “He taught us to remember that the cello, or any other instrument, is only what that word implies: an instrument to reach the ultimate goal of music, not the other way round. Musicians are under such pressure to succeed — to play louder, faster, more brilliant — that the music becomes a way of showing how wonderfully you play. This, for Rostropovich, was wrong. What matters is generosity of spirit, to open your heart. And his spirit was so great, his heart so open, this is what he gave us in his classes.”
Not that they were easy. All of his students talk of being required to learn a concerto in two days or to come back and play the Bach cello suites from memory in a week. No excuses.
“Let’s be honest,” Ms. Georgian said. “We were quite afraid of him. For the first two years I was terrified. It’s strange to look now at the photos taken at those classes and realize that he was a relatively young man, still in his 30s. To us he was a god. We hung on his every word, and it wasn’t always kind. I never forget him saying to me when I played Brahms in his class, ‘You haven’t cried enough tears in your life to play this music.’ Actually he was right. I hadn’t. But I learned.”
For Mr. Maisky the price of attending Class 19 turned out to be more than just tears. It was one and a half years in a labor camp, resulting from his habit of taping everything Rostropovich said.
“The class was so incredible, and he worked at such speed, it was impossible to absorb,” Mr. Maisky said. “So for years I took along an old secondhand tape recorder, and eventually I needed to replace it. But these things were hard to get: only from the special shop with special certificates.”
Getting the certificates involved a black-market currency deal for which Mr. Maisky was arrested and put on trial. “The whole thing was a setup,” he said. “They’d been watching me because my sister had emigrated to Israel, and they expected me to do the same. It was their revenge. But one and a half years was lucky. I could have got eight.”
Whether Mr. Rostropovich was instrumental in getting the sentence reduced is not clear. Mr. Maisky thinks not. “Because this was 1970,” he said, “when his influence had collapsed because of his support for Solzhenitsyn. Until then he had power. He could ring up Brezhnev. After Solzhenitsyn his power was lost, so there was nothing he could do for me, except in personal terms. In that sense he was like a father. He sent money, he maintained my spirit, so many things.”
Mr. Maisky was in a hotel in Munich when he heard of Mr. Rostropovich’s death. “It came up on the TV news, and I was devastated,” he said. “The only thing I could think to do was take my cello out and play a Bach suite. For him.”
But for all of that, did Mr. Rostropovich generate a discernible school of playing? He himself avoided talk of schools; and although he could trace a direct musical ancestry back to Karl Davidov, the founder of the so-called Russian tradition, he was by general agreement such a giant personality and such a universal figure that he outgrew any allegiance.
“It isn’t meaningful to talk of schools these days,” Ms. Georgian said. “I’m never sure what people mean when they speak of the Russian school beyond something that’s loud, Romantic and more from the heart than the head, which is not necessarily a compliment. With Rostropovich there was no school. And though we are in many ways close, there are big differences in the playing of his students, no?”
Listening to everyone in Manchester, one could hardly disagree. The hard, compacted, unadorned intensity of Ms. Gutman bore little obvious resemblance to the mellow sheen of Ms. Georgian; still less to the liquid brilliance of Mr. Maisky. Could these people really be the family they claimed to be?
“Yes, definitely,” Mr. Maisky insisted. “Different as we are, we have a shared blood transfusion that doesn’t determine how we play or present musical ideas but does affect basic quality of sound, which for Rostropovich was the most important thing.”
The Rostropovich sound is hard to put in words. Mr. Kirshbaum called it “powerful, with an inner life that sustained its intensity even at the most delicate and soft dynamic.” And regardless of the terminology, it has certainly inspired successive generations of young cellists. For Natalie Clein, one of Britain’s rising stars here last weekend, “it was the sound I searched for through my teen years: electric, incandescent, large but never forced, the sound that brought me to the cello in the first place.”
Bringing people to the cello ranks high among the legacies Mr. Rostropovich leaves behind. He raised the profile of the instrument; he raised the standard of performance. And for Ms. Georgian he single-handedly rescued the cello from its also-ran status as a solo instrument that lagged behind the violin and piano, largely because of the shortage of first-rank repertory.
It was the constant complaint of cellists that they had no Beethoven or Brahms concerto to themselves, and no Mozart at all, while pianists and violinists had so much. Mr. Rostropovich begged, pestered and bullied composers of distinction to write for him. Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten, Lutoslawski, Bernstein, Penderecki, Schnittke and Walton (the list runs on) obliged him with what amounts to a near-comprehensive catalog of 20th-century cello music.
Mr. Rostropovich gave the premieres of 224 new works, large and small. “And that means we cellists owe him maybe 40 percent of our current repertoire,” Mr. Ma said, “which for me is the greatest legacy of all.”
One other item on the checklist of bequests is the very fact that massed events like Manchester exist. They’re just the kind of thing Mr. Rostropovich loved and fostered. He encouraged cello clubs. He liked the camaraderie of fellow players. And in a short filmed speech made for a previous Manchester festival and poignantly replayed at this one, he commended (with his heavy Russian English) the “enormous, brilliant friendship, very rare” of cello gatherings. He even offered a reason for the friendliness of cellists: “We carry heavy instruments and suffer so much planes and trains. This makes us sympathetic people.”
Participants here offered other explanations. Ms. Clein thought it had to do with spending your life playing bass lines. “You’re supportive,” she added, “always helping someone else to shine.”
Whatever the reason, cellists manifestly do enjoy one another’s company. And if Mr. Rostropovich’s death weren’t bad enough, the participants were hit with more bad news when rumors that this year’s festival would be the last were confirmed.
“Things have their time frame,” said Mr. Kirshbaum, the director, “and the festival has grown so much it’s reaching saturation point. Back in 1987 it was meant to be a one-off. I never imagined I’d still be doing it 20 years later. And now, after 36 years of living in Britain, I’m thinking about moving my base, quite possibly back to the U.S.”
Could someone else pick up the ball? Any successor to Mr. Kirshbaum would need to have an international profile big enough to lean on friends and call in favors. And the owners of big international profiles tend not to have the time for such ventures.What Manchester needs, clearly, is a Rostropovich. So far there are no contenders.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche