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Slava, Part 2


In May Mstislav Rostropovich, legendary cellist and former conductor of the National Symphony, shared his wit and wisdom in a special program with members and friends of the Kindler Cello Society. In our summer issue we reported on his anecdotes from childhood to entering the Moscow conservatory. This second article concludes our recap of the program.

“That’s when I feel my real life began,” Slava told the audience about his entry to the Moscow Conservatory at age 16. His application had been supported by a letter of high praise from the musicians in a small theatre in the Urals, where the family had been evacuated during the Second World War. Slava enrolled as a student of both composition and cello and reported that “all kinds of things happened.” He received great encouragement from many people but was not told about the required year-end exams. When the time arrived, he wondered why he needed to take exams at all and ended up failing seven. His cello professor happened to be married to his mother’s sister. Slava and his mother went to visit the professor, who had a great fondness for vodka. During the visit a carafe of vodka with black currant extract enlivened the conversation. Slava’s aunt, using a slang term for failing exams, asked his mother whether she knew that Slava “had seven tails.” His mother, unfamiliar with the term, argued back that Slava didn’t even have one tail, much less seven. When his mother finally understood what had happened, Slava saw tears in her eyes. “Each mother always thinks that her child is a genius.” As for Slava, “I poured vodka for myself and, for my sorrows, drank it down and remembered little after that.”


Having learned an important lesson, Slava retook the seven exams the next fall and passed. He later passed all his second-year exams with a 5+, the highest possible score. He was then advanced immediately to the final year. “I worked very hard to pass as quickly as possible,” and he completed the five-year program in three years.


Slava recounted that his most significant relationship was with composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who served as his mentor. “He was sincerely disposed to me from the very beginning.” Slava recalled one time when he came to Shostakovich’s classroom with his cello. They were the only people there, and Shostakovich wrote a melody in Slava’s notebook and asked him to play it. “It was in harmonics. I played it so fantastically and Shostakovich was enormously grateful. I never forgot that.” A few months later, Slava attended the premiere of Shostakovich’s piano trio and heard the cello harmonics as the opening passage. He has never again, he said, played it as well as the first time in the classroom. “Thank god I never threw out my notebook.”

Slava recalled his Carnegie Hall debut in the 1955-56 season. He was enormously nervous. The hall was not sold out, but he figured all 99 people there were cellists. “Of course, I tried my best” and received many compliments backstage. One gentleman invited him to come the next day to his house to play the Duport Strad. He still has a Polaroid photo of himself playing the instrument. He next encountered the instrument in 1974 in Chicago. In September he left Russia and came to Chicago to see Chagall mosaics and to play Bach. The widow of the Strad owner told him there that her husband had decreed that the instrument should either be sold to Slava or else kept in the family. He played the first Bach Suite on it and the cello became his on September 10, 1974.


With that momentous development, Slava concluded his remarks and then took questions from the audience. In his replies he shared several more wonderful anecdotes. Robert Kwok asked about a bow that Slava left at Picasso’s house in Paris. Slava reminisced “That was the best bow in the world, a Kittel. It’s there now.” He explained that Picasso’s assistant invited him over, and Slava arrived with his cello and some vodka. He played Bach. “We sat for almost the entire night and, honestly, also drank vodka.” Picasso showed Slava some special works that were portraits of two people in different moods. “I never show this to anyone. I only show you to show how hard I work,” Picasso told Slava. Later Picasso took an engraving pen and said to Slava, “Give me your bow.” Slava wrote on the frog, “For Pablo, Slava.” After he arrived home from the unusual evening, Slava opened his case, noticed his bow was gone, and remembered what had happened. He also discovered a large medallion on his chest, about which he had no recollection. On a recent visit to Paris he visited Picasso’s home, accompanied by the mayor. The bow hangs on the wall, near two unwashed glasses. Slava offered to write on a different bow, in order to have the Kittel back, but his offer was rejected.

Bob Battey asked about Slava’s relationship with pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Richter was 13 years older, and the two began playing together when Slava was 18. Their collaboration lasted many years. Slava recounted a episode when author Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s widow was hosting a costume party on New Year’s Day. Richter insisted they go together as two crocodiles. He ordered two masks from a friend who worked in a children’s theatre. Slava assembled the costumes from long johns embellished with 100 meters of elastic, all boiled in green dye. Slava was the female crocodile and stuffed the front of his costume with newspaper. Both costumes had booties for the feet. The awkward thing was that the masks had to go on before the costumes, so the friends had to travel to the party in full gear. They had agreed to crawl on the floor during the party. It was a horribly cold day, and the driver who delivered them to the party couldn’t believe his eyes. Richter schemed, “I’m going to crawl in first. I won’t close the door. Then you come later and people will be frightened again.” Slava said he was shaking from the cold and another woman from the apartment building came out and began screaming her head off. “Then I finally went upstairs and crawled for two hours. After that, we cancelled our concerts for the next two weeks.” Slava concluded, “That was our friendship.”


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