Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Rostropovich, Shostakovich, Run, Don't Walk

For two weeks the San Francisco Symphony is playing the music of Dmitri Shostakovich under the baton of Mstislav Rostropovich, the famous Russian cellist and conductor who is one of the last living links to the late composer.

It sounded great on paper but the question was how together he would be at age 79, and though his skills as a cellist are commonly acknowledged as putting him into the pantheon with the greats of history, his conducting reputation has always been controversial.

So let's just get it out of the way. The current concert, which starts with a great, bombastic six-minute "Festive Overture" from 1954, that includes brass instruments wailing away at the climax on either side of the Terrace section, is just plain awesome.

The overture is followed by the First Piano Concerto from 1933 that is actually a concerto for piano, trumpet, and orchestra, and which is some freakishly original masterpiece that sounds like a cross between Prokofiev, Ravel and Britten, but which has a voice of its own.

Yefim Bronfman played the piano and was as astonishing as the conductor.

On a Wednesday night in Davies Hall, only the coolest of musical afficionados were represented, including the legendary Joe Harris, The Opera House Dresser, myself and Nancy F.

Plus, every other voice you heard was speaking in Russian which was sort of fun, like traveling to another country without walking more than a block.

I've come to Shostakovich by way of Benjamin Britten, possibly my favorite composer of the twentieth century. Though Britten never actually said it, I think the only contemporary who he accepted as a perfect equal was Shostakovich, and their careers overlapped completely, from the early 1930s to the mid-1970s.

The person who binds the two composers together most powerfully is Rostropovich, who was friends with both of them, and for whom both musicians wrote extraordinary works for cello. In Britten's case, he also wrote one of the great soprano parts in all of music for "The War Requiem" for Galina Vishnevskaya, Rostropovich's wife.

After Mstislav and Galina were exiled during the 1970s from Soviet Russia after defending their friend Solzhenitsyn a bit too vigorously, Vishnevskaya wrote an autobiography entitled "Galina" that is one of the greatest artistic and political autobiographies of any sort ever written. I cannot recommend the wild, score-settling, passionate and brilliant memoir highly enough.

After the completion of the performance of the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony, Rostropovich turned his back to the audience and went to each group of musicians in the symphony, making them take their individuals bows, and the audience went a bit insane. There's a Thursday matinee and another performance on Friday and Saturday. Definitely check it out. This is a bit of history that will never be repeated.


Kit Stolz said...

Wish I could check it out. But it's inspiring to read about (and see!) a legend who remains so vital and so generous and so musical, even at an advanced age.

cedichou said...

Nice piece! You have the best pictures as always. I believe Rostro actually emigrated from Russia in the 70s. Prokofiev too wrote him a cello concerto!

sfmike said...

Dear Ced: I'm sure you're right about the Rostropovich emigration being during the 1970s rather than the 1960s so I'm going to go back and change it. I actually saw him conducting "The Queen of Spades" with Galina starring at the San Francisco Opera soon after they emigrated and that was in the mid-1970s.

Alan said...

Only just found this and, of course, Rostropovich has now died and the world is now one inspiring musician less. he certainly inspired me in my early days of 'cello playing and still does...