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His Human Touch

Mstislav Rostropovich makes music the way he makes friends: with all his heart. That's how he's inspired the 20th century's key composers and today's musicians.


LONDON--It is Mstislav Rostropovich's birthday, but he's doling out as many kisses as he's receiving.

For two weeks, the Russian cellist, conductor and pianist has been celebrating his 75th (actual date: March 27) with a residency at the London Symphony Orchestra, conducting half a dozen programs devoted to his "good friends" Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Benjamin Britten.

In his last outing in the fortnight, he is joined in a Britten program at the Barbican Centre by another close friend, 27-year-old Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov. The audience is already cheering when the maestro grazes Vengerov's cheeks at the end of the concert, but it explodes when he smacks Vengerov squarely on the lips.

This is not surprising behavior from the lovable man everyone calls "Slava" (a short version of his first name translating as "Glory"). Through his relationships with the world's most prominent musicians and composers, Rostropovich has helped inspire a significant portion of 20th century music: Nearly 200 works have been written for him either as soloist or conductor (Prokofiev, Britten and Shostakovich were among his benefactors). He has received more than 40 honorary degrees, some 130 awards, and the abundant affection and respect of peers and public alike. And he has long been an outspoken voice for human freedom. He risked his own well-being to defend his friends against the former Soviet regime. When the Berlin Wall fell, he famously jetted there the next day to serenade the celebrants, tears streaming down his cheeks. In 1991, he joined Boris Yeltsin inside the Russian parliament building as a show of solidarity.

But on this important birthday, the man being celebrated has chosen to use his talent for human connections to pay tribute to his colleagues, past, present and future. The audience loves Vengerov, but perhaps no one claps more avidly than Rostropovich.

"Britten's old friend Rostropovich belies his age to soar again," London's Sunday Observer said in a review of the concert. The Evening Standard called him a "birthday boy of scintillating panache." And the Guardian reported that "with typical generosity, he diverted the focus from himself."

The day after the Britten concert, Rostropovich joins the London Symphony Orchestra at Air Studios, a dramatic recording space in a converted church in northwest London. They're rehearsing Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony, which they will perform at Lincoln Center later this month, part of a birthday tour of the United States that includes appearances in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Toledo, Atlanta, Chicago, Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara.

This is an orchestra he knows and loves (he says every single member is a friend), first performing with it in 1961 and earning honorary membership 14 years ago. Half-perched on a leather-topped stool with the tailored shirt of his gray suit purposefully untucked, the barrel-chested, gray-haired Rostropovich conducts with athletic vigor, taking breaks only to give notes to the players. He cracks a joke, sings a few bars, pounds out the rhythm with powerful hands.

After the rehearsal, Rostropovich has agreed to spend an hour being interviewed with an interpreter at his side--a security blanket he often uses despite living mostly in the West since the 1970s. The Soviet Union, which honored him in 1951 with its top award, the Stalin Prize, later punished him for supporting such musicians as Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and for sheltering the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Forced into the welcoming arms of the West in 1974, Rostropovich and his wife--soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, whom he has accompanied on piano throughout the world--and two daughters were soon stripped of their citizenship. In 1977, he landed a job as conductor of the National Symphony in Washington, a post he held for 17 years.

But he has ended rehearsal early, and the translator isn't due for another hour, so he decides to brave it alone. He breezes into the Green Room at the former church, plunks down a bag of unopened birthday presents and a briefcase stuffed with scores, and rushes up to greet his interviewer with a trio of kisses (left, right, left). He sips English tea milkless, in observance of Orthodox Lent. But he isn't waiting until Easter for his chocolate. He breaks open the foil on a bar of French noir with gusto and devours the whole thing in minutes--save the pieces he has insisted on sharing.

"I'm tired," begins the famously tireless Rostropovich, who has slept only two hours, returning after last night's post-concert party to an apartment in the midst of renovations and to a pile of letters and faxes. He goes on to show no signs of tiredness.

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