Tag Archives: Mstislav Rostropovich

Emil Gilels plaque, Moscow

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DSCN9201The structure at 25 Tverskaya Street is one of those many in Moscow that has a rich cultural heritage. I have already written about the fact that playwright Nikolai Erdman lived here in the 1950s with his ballerina wife Natalya Chidson. I’ll have occasion to write about others who occupied apartments here, but today we consider Emil Gilels (1916-1985), one of the preeminent pianists of his era.
I, a child of rock and roll, find it ironic, at least, that the first time I ever heard the name “Gilels” was when I was having a conversation with a KGB agent who was following me around Washington, D.C., where I lived in the early 1980s. I’m not quite sure whether the agent befriended me or I befriended him, but the fact of the matter is that we often got together on our lunch breaks to chat about all things – or, at least, many things – Russian culture. It was during one of these chats that my acquaintance mentioned meeting and accompanying Gilels somewhere. The lack of understanding was probably clear on my face and he asked, “You do know who Emil Gilels is, don’t you?” I blithely admitted I did not and my interlocutor eliminated my ignorance on this topic for ever more. “He is the greatest living pianist,” he said. Those words stuck; I never forgot them. When I came to Moscow in the late 1980s and learned that Nikolai Erdman, the topic of my first book (and the reason that the KGB agent had tracked me down in the first place), had lived side-by-side with Gilels, I could not help but be amused. Indeed, the Lord works in wondrous ways.
But that’s a story for another day.
Gilels, like many of the luminaries who lived in this attractive “Stalinist” building, moved in shortly after it was built in 1950. When you look over the plaques on its walls selectively honoring some of its famous inhabitants, you notice that they all began living here in 1950 or 1951. This was because this huge residential building occupying the better part of a long Moscow city block was built to house the elite. Specifically, it was built to provide housing for people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater, although one didn’t necessarily need a direct connection to the Bolshoi to get in. Gilels would be a good example of that. As a famous, touring solo musician, his connection to the Bolshoi would have been tentative, but it would have been enough to put him on the list of people waiting for prestigious apartments when they came available.
In fact, the history of this building is rather complex and quite interesting. Originally, this block was occupied on the north end by a church known as the Church of the Annunciation (erected in the 17th century) and on the south end by an eye hospital that occupied an old private estate  built around 1773. The church, as was often done in the Stalin era, was knocked down in 1929, and construction of a new apartment building was begun alongside the eye hospital. However, Stalin decided in the late 1930s to widen Tverskaya Street and give it a more imperial look. As such, the eye hospital on the lower half of the block was put on rails and moved off of Tverskaya Street, making room for a new building. (Not only was it moved back by about 50 meters, its facade was turned sideways to face what is now the Young Spectator Theater, which now is famously run by Henrietta Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas.) However, World War II interrupted plans to build the new structure, and construction only got under way in 1949. As indicated above, it was completed a year later. Wisely, the authorities engaged the same architect who had built the first half in the early 1930s to build the new half in 1949. His name was Andrei Burov. He connected the two structures by way of three tall archways somewhat to the left of the middle of the city block. Both sections look virtually alike today.

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One assumes that the building looked much spiffier during Gilels’ tenure here (he lived here until his death in 1985). The facades now are rather grimy and neglected. The runaway capitalism of the 1990s still leaves scars in the way that storefronts do not match the building’s decor or design. The place needs a bit of sanding and paint, but it’s also obvious that even a little work would make the building sparkle. It is a potential jewel standing two blocks north of Pushkin Square.
(At this very moment, the street is completely torn up as current Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, for some reason, decided to undo Stalin’s widening of Tverskaya and is now putting Muscovites through the painful process of having to stand by and watch everything be ripped up as the authorities narrow Tverskaya back down – this time with widened sidewalks and bike lanes.)
But back to Gilels. He began playing piano at the age of five and his first public performance took place in 1929, the year that church was destroyed to make room for the right half of his future home. He performed with success in Odessa in the early 1930s then gained national fame when he won the first All-Union Musician’s Competition in 1933. He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and immediately began winning prestigious competitions in Europe. In 1945, as World War II was ending, he was one of the first Soviet soloists given permission to perform concert series abroad, and in 1950 – the year he moved into the building we see here – he formed a famous trio with Leonid Kogan on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello. He was the first Soviet musician to perform the Salle Playel in Paris in 1954, and the following year became the first Soviet soloist to tour the United States.
Of the famed trio, one Western critic has written: “This group stayed together for most of the 1950s, and broke up largely because Kogan and Rostropovich had very strong political differences and could not continue to get along. What a pity – I’m not sure there has ever been a more spectacular chamber ensemble.”
Russian Wikipedia keeps the list of Gilels’ awards at a neat 22, almost half of them coming from foreign countries. He was, in fact, one of the great musicians of his age, and the 35 years he spent at 25 Tverskaya Street were the time of the flourishing of his talent and fame.

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Dmitry Shostakovich plaque, Voronezh

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Dmitry Shostakovich made two trips to Voronezh, one in 1933, and another in 1957. It’s an interesting spread in time. When Shostakovich performed at the Spartak cinema house on Dec. 20, 1933, with Vissarion Shebalin, he was still probably something of an unknown outside of musical circles. Among the cognoscenti he was already tabbed as one of the potentially great figures of the future. In any case, at that moment he still saw a cloudless sky stretching out before him. His works were being performed with increasing success in the West and throughout the Soviet Union, he was collaborating with such luminaries as Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky. It was just over two years later, on Jan. 28, 1936, that the famous “Muddle Instead of Music” attack – provoked by Joseph Stalin – hit him in Pravda, one of the Soviet government’s two main mouthpieces. That came as a response to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was written in the two years immediately before the composer visited Voronezh, but premiered (in St. Petersburg) just one month after that visit, on January 22, 1934.
By the time of his 1957 Voronezh concert on Oct. 11, Shostakovich was a veteran of the Soviet culture wars. He had been chewed up, wrung out, spat out and fully embraced  by the government apparatus (one of the worst things that could have happened to him). By this time he had, in other words, two contradictory reputations – one as someone who had run afoul of the authorities and had suffered seriously for it, and another as someone that the authorities had taken under their wing and used as propaganda whenever and wherever they saw fit. It was a nasty place for an artist to be and it – to use that horrible word that Pravda threw at him – has “muddled” his reputation ever since.
The hall which hosted the 1957 concert was, and still is, the Officers House, located at 32 Revolution Prospekt. Shostakovich conducted an orchestra that played his compositions, although I have not determined what those works were specifically.
In my searches I did, however, run across another tidbit of interesting information (that may be an overly strong word) that would appear to be connected to Shostakovich’s appearance in Voronezh. A book titled 40 Songs of V[ano] Muradeli, V[enedikt] Pushkov, and D. Shostakovich, published in Moscow in 1957, showed up at an auction in Voronezh a few years ago. One can’t help but wonder if an extra lot of these books was sent to Voronezh in the hopes that it would sell well during the composer’s visit. Thus it was that the relatively rare book showed up in Voronezh, rather than some other city, many decades later. Just enjoying a bit of speculation here…

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The unveiling of the plaque honoring Shostakovich was a major event for the city, as much thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich as to  the memory of Shostakovich. Rostropovich (about whom I have written several times on this blog – click his name to the left) traveled to Voronezh specially to attend the ceremony. On that occasion, Rostropovich told a local newspaper, “I love Voronezh very much, but from this day on I will love it even more. Because this city has risen in my esteem by unveiling a plaque to a genius. And I am very grateful to you for that, for this was my favorite composer and teacher. Shostakovich came to Voronezh twice. He gave a concert in the auditorium of the Spartak cinema house in 1933, and in October 1957 – at the Officers House. It is right here where the memory of Dmitry Dmitrievich has been memorialized.”
Without quoting Rostropovich verbatim, Vesti.ru reported that the great violist recalled the difficult circumstances in which Shostakovich had to live and work, although he added that the harassment of the Soviet state and the official banning of his concerts never broke Shostakovich’s innovative spirit.
Several people who attended the 1957 concert were present to bear witness on that day, Dec. 11, 2006, when the plaque was revealed to the public. One was Tamara Yurova, a professor at the Voronezh Academy of Arts. “There were not many people in attendance,” Yurova is quoted as saying, “probably because the scope of Dmitry Dmitrievich’s gift and the true scope of his personality, the beauty and depth of his works, were then not obvious even to all musicians. However, the atmosphere was marvelous. The people of Voronezh received Shostakovich warmly.” (This quote combines two different versions that are posted on kommuna.ru and on Vesti.ru.)
I direct those interested in minutiae to the official Voronezh city document that set the unveiling of the plaque in motion, the Resolution No. 2117 of the Head of the City Region of the City of Voronezh, dated Dec. 21, 2005, and officially titled: “On the Mounting of a Memorial Plaque Honoring D.D. Shostakovich.” This document, signed by B.M. Skrynnikov, the Head of the City Region, establishes the place where the plaque shall be hung, what shall be written on it (“The great composer Dmitry Dmitrivich Shostakovich [1906-1975] performed here in October 1957”), and who shall pay for it – the Voronezh region NTV television channel.
For the record, this was still before NTV turned into the blood-sucking, lie-mongering pack of snakes that it has since become…

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Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya grave, Moscow

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These are not the best of days for those of us who, by love, have devoted our lives to the study of Russian culture. Russia’s reputation, damaged by wars, corruption, subterfuge, lies,  belligerence and bad politics is at an all-time low. In just the last week the Russian government has launched numerous campaigns against “internal and external enemies,” that is, those who would like to see Russia be a land that respects the rule of law and the freedom of conscience. Just today the government officially accused former tycoon, and now, social activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of two murders and the masterminding of four more. This comes two days after Khodorkovsky declared in a public speech that revolution might be necessary to force regime change in Russia. Yesterday the Russian Prosecutor General launched a massive investigation into the life and work practices of the muck-raking opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This came one week after Navalny released a stunning 45-minute film detailing the mafia-like corruption of the two sons of the Russian Prosecutor General. All of these events are sandwiched in and around an event that is enormous for those of us in Russia, but may slip by those who aren’t watching the territory closely – that is, the three-year prison conviction handed down to a young man, Ildar Dadin, whose crime it was to participate in four political protests where he was detained by police. Dadin is the first individual to be prosecuted under a relatively new, draconian law, which makes it a crime to be detained four times at political protests. Thus, while there are many people sitting in prisons in Russia right now for political reasons, Dadin has become the first actually to be arrested, tried and convicted for nothing other than the fact that he makes it a point to protest the policies of the Russian government. (Incidentally, the prosecutor asked for two years in prison; the eager-beaver judge handed down a sentence of three.) This, meanwhile, coincides with an enormous strike being led by Russian truck drivers to protest unfair and unfairly high road taxes. Thousands of truck drivers, with their trucks, have descended on Moscow, and are prepared to stop traffic in the city in order to make their demands be heard.
In short, things are bleak and confrontational around here these days.
Thus, it seems the proper moment to combine pain and joy into one. We seek joy to offset our pain – thus this entire blog site arose, as I explained some time ago. And, yet, we refuse to turn our eyes away from what pains us. Thus everything I have written up to this point today.
In short, I now wish to ponder the final resting place of two of Russia’s greatest citizens of any era – the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. I photographed their grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery last week when passing by it to attend the burial of the great film director Eldar Ryazanov, still another fine citizen whom this nation could not afford to lose.

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But if the pain of losing Ryazanov was, and still is, acute, fresh and unabated, the joy of coming upon Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was equally as sharp. The mere pronunciation of either of these two names is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face who knows.
To be sure, we are not entirely at ease with the notion that these two extraordinary people are no longer with us. For contemporaries who were affected by them – and that is half of Russia, half of the world – that nagging pain may lessen to a certain level of discomfort, but it does not go away. Yet, the joy that they brought us is, obviously, what prevails. I must insert here a comment that I randomly discovered on the internet. I think it perfectly sums up the public attitude to this pair:
I hold this man [Rostropovich] in veneration not because he was a GREAT musician, but simply because he was a marvelous PERSON. The vaccines purchased by the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation saved the health of thousands of Russian children. Vaccines against Hepatitis B and cancer found their way to many regions and corners of Russia. We remember...”
The comment is signed “galsvanidze.”
These two great citizens of their nation, the Soviet Union and Russia, were personal friends of Dmitry Shostakovich during the years when the composer was persecuted by the Soviet government, as well as of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer whom they sheltered at their dacha outside Moscow when he was under attack from the officials. Rostropovich, defying the fears of his wife, jumped on an airplane to join protesters on Moscow’s streets during the attempted coup by hardliners seeking to depose Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. You can read about that in the L.A. Times. He had done the same so as to be present when the Berlin Wall fell in 1889 – he felt compelled to be there to play his cello for that historical event. You can see him do so on YouTube.
As for Vishnevskaya, she was every bit as fierce a defender of freedom, truth and art as her husband. Although her native land essentially forced her into emigration in 1974, when it became possible to return and work in Russia, she  set about establishing a Moscow-based, world class school for opera musicians, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center. Since its opening in 2002, it has been one of the strongest bearers of Russia’s cultural traditions. As a declaration on the center’s website puts it, “The principal task of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre is to perpetuate Russia’s great operatic traditions and to cause Russian opera to be perceived anew.”
Throughout difficult times in Russia from the end of the 1980s until Rostropovich’s death in 2007, and Vishnevskaya’s death in 2012, these two individuals brought hope, light, courage, humor and strength to everyone around them. I remember what a joy it was to hear or see that one or the other, or both, had arrived in Moscow for a concert or a personal appearance. It was as though old friends had come home to visit. Their presence, the knowledge that they were with us, was a powerful antidote to the negativity that can seep into one’s bones in Moscow.
At times like the present we look to individuals like Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ryazanov, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves why we fell in love with the art they made and the culture they helped build and sustain, sometimes against all odds. Now it is our turn to carry that flame, as best as we can, and flicker as it might.

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Mstislav Rostropovich plaque, Voronezh

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Today we look at a plaque that hangs on the wall of the Voronezh Music College and informs all who bother to stop and read, that the great musician Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), an honorary citizen of the city of Voronezh, conducted master classes here in 2002, 2004 and 2006. But there is more than just a plaque here. As you can see in the middle of the three photos immediately below, the institution located at 41 Revolution Prospect is called the Voronezh Musical College and is named after the Rostropoviches. There is a good reason for that, just as there is a good reason that Rostropovich, already well aged, would have come to Voronezh to offer master classes over the course of five years at a time when he was surely very busy and slowing down.
You see, Witold Rostropovich (1856-1913), Mstislav’s grandfather, spent most of his adult life in Voronezh. A pianist, composer and publisher, Witold moved to Voronezh in 1879 and stayed there until his death. He taught at the men’s gymnasium and performed concerts from time to time. His son Leopold Rostropovich (1892-1942), Mstislav’s father, was born in Voronezh, later attending the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Leopold was a cellist, teacher and conductor, who subsequently worked in Saratov and Baku – where Mstislav was born.
The college itself was founded in 1904 as an affiliate of the Imperial Russian Musical Society of Music Classes. It received the status of a musical college in 1911. A nice history of the college on a Voronezh-based website tells us that, thanks to Witold Rostropovich, even before the college opened, aspiring local musicians were able to study their craft. On August 24, 1922, Leopold Rostropovich returned to his native city to perform a concert of works by Sergei Rachmaninov at this location. The college was officially named after the Rostropovich family in 2002, and in 2004, as noted above, Mstislav came to participate in the ceremony marking the college’s 100th anniversary. According to the site I’m crimping from, Rostropovich’s appearance was a “genuine triumph,” and the five master-classes he conducted over the years were “unforgettable.” The site also quotes a “touching” telegram from Vladimir Putin on the occasion, but I trust we can skip quoting that. The master classes offered by Rostropovich in February 2002, February 2004 and December 2006 were the last ones he ever conducted.

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I now have the pleasure of sharing one of the most fascinating, entertaining and funny videos I have ever encountered. Someone in 1980 – and who was videotaping in 1980? – had the incredible smarts to turn a video camera on Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya and the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein and just let it run while the trio ate and drank together at table. This took place in Deauville, France. The trio switch back and forth between Russian, English and French as any true globetrotters might. Their topics of conversation are broad, indeed – language itself, the smoking of cigars (Vishnevskaya insists she never smoked anything but cigars), the necessity of salt on food, Rostropovich’s adulation of Rubinstein, Rostropovich getting Rubinstein to sing a Tchaikovsky melody, and much, much more. This video is nine minutes and fourteen seconds of well-spent leisure time. This is one of those rare things that, once you have seen it, you will never forget it. Rostropovich is a ham deluxe, goading people on, teasing them, hogging attention and lavishing love on a legend.
Voronezh got a good deal of mileage out of Rostropovich. They had him there in person when, in 2002, they unveiled a plaque honoring his grandfather on the home where Witold lived. He was there again in 2006 when a plaque was unveiled honoring the fact that Mstislav’s friend Dmitry Shostakovich performed a concert in Voronezh in 1957 (I’ll be writing about that sometime in the future).
And there is one more little detail about Rostropovich’s 2004 visit. I take this directly from a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda Voronezh in 2006:
“During his last visit Mstislav Rostropovich received what was probably the most unusual title of his entire career. And that is keeping in mind that he is an honorary professor at fifty places of higher learning in the world. During the Third Traditional Tournament of Free-Style Karate in Voronezh, he was given an honorary black belt! The famous musician commented on the gift as follows: ‘I long ago surpassed Brezhnev in the number of orders and medals I have received. But I seriously doubt that any of my colleagues can claim that, among their honors, they are honorary karate specialists! It is an ancient form of battle, no less so than the art of playing the cello. I am quite touched’…”
And, finally, I must quote a description of Rostropovich drawn from the supporting text to a video of him in Voronezh on a local TV station. This about says it all:
“Mstislav Rostropovich is a distinguished cellist, conductor and pianist. His exceptional talent, his unflagging energy, his unique combination of being a great artist and humanist of uncommon power and of magnetically attractive personality, have determined his entirely unique place in the history of classical music.”
Amen.

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Mstislav Rostropovich Monument, Moscow

IMG_3545.jpg2This monument to Mstislav Rostropovich appeared in the little square at the crux of Moscow’s Bryusov Pereulok and Yeliseyevsky Pereulok in 2012, five years after the cellist died. He was one of the great artists and great citizens of the world. He sheltered Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s, when that writer was under attack from the Soviet authorities. But I don’t want to get into listing all of this cellists great deeds – I’ll never get anything else said.

IMG_3546.jpg2 IMG_3552.jpg2I used to see Rostropovich perform frequently in the 1980s in Washington, D.C., when he was the musical director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. I loved him for his temperament, his enthusiasm, his passion. No symphony orchestra could merely play under the direction of his baton. The musicians had to perform. With Shostakovich at the helm, the National Symphony Orchestra was a beast – a live, living organism that breathed and seethed. I know, I know. There are those who thought Rostropovich, especially as a conductor, was too emotional. In my book: Baloney. Rostropovich brought class, quality, breadth and depth to classical music in D.C. during his tenure. He breathed life and importance into a sleepy art form in a sleepy, or as the song has it – a “bourgeois” – town.

IMG_3547.jpg2IMG_3553.jpg2In Moscow, from the Perestroika era on, Rostropovich was a frequent and welcome guest. He rarely missed an opportunity to make it known what side he was on politically – showing up to play his cello as the Berlin Wall fell, and showing up in Moscow during the coup in Moscow to lend his support to Boris Yeltsin. The monument in Moscow is a multi-layered work by sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov and architect Igor Voskresensky. Among other things, it includes a page from the music to one of the works that Sergei Prokofiev wrote expressly for the musician.

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