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Obituaries

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

April 28, 2007|Chris Pasles | 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."

"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."

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."

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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