The joy of 'Slava'

September 20, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON -- ONE DAY in the winter of 1989, I walked into my condominium in downtown Washington and found Mstislav Rostropovich, the great Russian/American conductor, standing at our front desk. This remarkable man, always so in control of everything, seemed slightly dazed, and there was a look of pure joy on his face.

After greeting me, he stood still for several long seconds. "Last night, I conducted 250 cellists," he finally murmured. "Last night, I conducted 250 cellists . . ."

At that moment, I saw as close to a beatific joy as I have ever seen, next to certain pictures of saints. Afterward, I discovered that this musician, whom many consider the world's greatest cellist, had indeed conducted at a world conference of no fewer than 5,000 of his fellow cellists.

And now "Slava," as he is affectionately called by just about everyone, is leaving the Washington he has come so to love. This fall, the newspapers and television have been full of "Salutes to Slava," as the 67-year-old conductor retired after 17 years from his directorship of the National Symphony Orchestra.

His magnificent care of the American orchestra is being heralded around the world, as is his musical genius.

But, Slava, you see, was our neighbor. He lived for many years in our little condo (never playing too loudly, I might add). So we neighbors see him differently -- much as a wife invariably sees critically the man she lives with.

Indeed, it would probably be interesting to many in today's world of vulgar "celebrities" to admit that, yes, this widely admired man was "different" close up. Except that it would be grossly untrue.

There was the early evening one year ago, for instance -- about 5:30 p.m., as people were just returning home from work -- when my elevator stopped on the first floor and there I beheld a delightfully comic scene worthy of Italian opera.

Mr. Rostropovich had, as we all do at times, run downstairs in his bathrobe to pick something up at the desk -- thinking, of course, that no one would see him.

At that moment, this pre-eminent musician was caught really offstage, spindly legs sticking out of his silk bathrobe, feet in scuffs, gray hair askew! Two of the men from the building, as well as I, all spontaneously pointed to "the maestro" as we dissolved in laughter. Tellingly no one laughed more heartily than he! (But then, we must remember, this tall, substantially-built man once came out dressed as the swan in "Swan Lake" for Isaac Stern's birthday!)

In short, Mr. Rostropovich is a man who has been unceasingly a delight to have around. Coming in the front door of the building, he would invariably kiss all the women's hands or give bear hugs. At parties, I have seen him get up from a serious discussion and untiringly greet every person, no matter how "important" or "unimportant"; although he has a distinct hierarchical judgment in music, Slava respects all good people. When I sent him my 1975 book about Russia, "The Young Russians," he hand-wrote a thank-you note. (The poor man even diligently and patiently signed those wearying condo letters and petitions that we all enjoy so much.)

It is easy observing or, better, knowing Mr. Rostropovich to focus on his volcanic temperament, on his joy in living, on his genuine love for so much of humankind. But this is also a man of moral stature, with the personal and artistic courage that makes compromise not only unnecessary but unthinkable.

Born of a musical family in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1927, he was

homeless in Moscow until a generous Armenian woman took the family in (naturally, Slava recently gave a benefit for Armenian relief). This is the man who, in 1948 when the great Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev were being persecuted by the Stalinists, defended them until such defenses led to the death of his own career in Russia. He even moved in with Sergei Prokofiev to make his point -- and I'll bet you any amount he was as good a house guest there as he has been a neighbor here.

Whether it's watching his magnificent conducting of the "Stars and Stripes Forever" every Fourth of July on the Mall, or enjoying his return to Moscow in triumph three years ago, or simply meeting him as he strolls into the building at night, I am always moved by him because I see so little of his spirit among America's young. So often, when I speak with them, they ask me passively what the world wants of them -- instead of, as Slava has demanded, what he expects of the world. And I am certain that that is the true secret of his joy in life.

In one of the many interviews he did before leaving, he said simply but firmly, "I never worry because I know that I'm right." But Slava is more than right: The final genius of Mstislav Rostropovich is that his human qualities are exactly equal to his musical genius and probably in great part the extension of them.

You don't believe it? Just ask his neighbors!

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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