07 March 2013

Genius of the cello

Scenes from the BBC documentary
Rostropovich: Genius of the Cello
"But because we suffer..."
"Of course we know our father's voice."
"They were chalk and cheese, but their relationship was
surprisingly close."
Re-experiencing the Shostakovich cello concerto premiere.
Xavier Phillips on Rostropovich's ideal endless bow.
"He would kiss anything he could kiss."
I was always vaguely aware of the cello, thanks to Pablo Casals and his brief appearance in the film Windjammer, which may have been the first movie I ever saw. But I'm afraid that the cello never captured my childhood attention the way the violin and piano did. It just seemed to be a sort of filler, a color instrument between the violin and the bass.

That all changed for me in December 1985. Judy and I made our first visit to Norway together that month, thanks to a package tour deal: $499 round trip to Oslo including six nights in a hotel. With Luke (less than two years old) paying 10% fare, we could make the whole trip for under $1200 if we didn't eat too much. When we told my cousin Johan Fredrik Heyerdahl the dates of our trip, he got tickets for us to a concert by Mstislav Rostropovich at the Oslo Concert Hall. "Oh, well," I thought, "Johan Fredrik must have a good reason to invite us."

It was a solo concert. My diary for 1985 is locked away in Oregon, and I can't remember the program details, but I vividly remember that lone figure in the middle of the huge stage, filling the enormous hall with string-voices of such amazing depth and range and beauty. And I wasn't alone--all around us were people clearly sharing this same experience--tears and endless delight.

So when Daphne Sanders, the clerk of Friends House Moscow's board, told me that the BBC had recently broadcast a documentary film about Mstislav Rostropovich, I was determined to find this film. We've used several other BBC films with our classes here in Elektrostal; one of my favorite examples is the three-program series The Art of Russia. Part of the fun of using these materials is the advance planning: careful viewing of each segment, studying transcripts and subtitles, identifying the specific points of English usage illustrated by each resource, and developing discussion questions  for our students.

Rostropovich: Genius of the Cello richly rewarded these efforts. Director/interviewer John Bridcut packs these ninety minutes with a beautifully-edited abundance of testimonies to his subject's love of life, friendship, music, expressed with a range of standard and nonstandard English, starting with Rostropovich's own cheeky self as he addresses the camera directly: 
Our life not so easy. Cello heavy instrument, and our travels, especially with aircraft, give to us many many difficulties. That's why we suffer more than violin player or flute player. But because we suffer, we is beautiful.
This same piece of film, both hilarious and achingly sentimental, provides a closing bracket toward the end of the documentary as well. In between, we hear many times from Rostropovich himself, from his students, his wife and daughters, other musicians, and via archival footage, from his dear friends Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Britten. We get an extraordinary glimpse of the nature of his friendship with Dmitri Shostakovich (two men whose personalities were as different as "chalk and cheese" in Bridcut's words) when Rostropovich himself describes how Shostakovich asked him to come over and sit with him for a while, instructing him: "Now, Slava, not speaking. Just sit down." An hour and a half later Shostakovich brings this silent time to an end. (Bear in mind that for this cellist of elemental energy, two minutes of silence feels like "a half life.") Shostakovich says to his friend, "Slava, thank you very much. That's now much easier coming life for me. Thank you, bye bye."

We get a close, detailed look at what happened on August 21, 1968, when Rostropovich and the USSR State Symphony Orchestra were scheduled to play Dvorak's cello concerto in London--at the very moment of Brezhnev's intervention to snuff out the Prague Spring. Ticket holders asked themselves, "Should we go?" Concert promoters asked, "Should the concert go on?" The event was threatened by demonstrations outside and inside the hall (and Galina Vishnevskaya, Mstislav's wife, describes hiding in her concert box)--but the concert did go on. Rostropovich played in tears, and his cello became the voice of a nation's conscience.

Watching these raw ninety minutes with my students took me to the very edge of what I could endure in emotional intensity. I think at one point I croaked out, "Now maybe you can understand why I'm here."



Only one footnote this week, since I want to focus on the joy this documentary gave me in my classes these last couple of days. But I really hope the case of Ramallah Friends Schools teacher Nour Joudah and her exclusion from Palestine can get more exposure.

And happy International Women's Day!

4 comments:

Nancy Thomas said...

Thank you, Johan. Last year the George Fox Symphony orchestra played Shostakovich's 5th Symphony. It was stunning. I gave Hal the CD later for his birthday. I don't remember a cello solo; perhaps there isn't one in that piece. I'm going to try and find something with Rostropovich on the cello (a new name to me).

Johan said...

Nancy, here's a nice sample piece by Rostropovich: In the film, Seiji Ozawa tells the story of what Rostropovich did when his Japanese friend Chiyonofuji's daughter died. Slava got on a plane with his cello, flew to Tokyo, got in a taxi, went to the sumo wrestler's house, sat in front of the house, played the Sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite #1, got back in the taxi, back to the airport, back home.

James said...

Thank you for this wonderful post recalling the lives of two great musical heroes: Rostropovich and Shostakovich.

Johan said...

My pleasure. Literally.