From 'nonexistence' to full life of music, work - and friends
They call him Slava. In white tie and tails, he strides briskly across the stage at the Kennedy Center, raises his baton, and plunges the orchestra into a performance of ''The Star-Spangled Banner'' that's so exuberant that the crystal chandeliers seem to shake. At ''the land of the free'' he summons up a golden crash of cymbals like an exclamation mark.Skip to next paragraph
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He has entered the country - music - from which he can never be exiled.
Mstislav Rostropovich, stripped of his Soviet citizenship five years ago - at the height of a career as cellist which won him the Lenin Prize, the Stalin Prize, and the nation's top honor, People's Artist of the Soviet Union - is scoring a new life here as conductor and music director of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Rostropovich, of medium height, has crystal blue eyes behind black-rimmed glasses and a half-thatch of pearl-gray hair framing an expressive face. He has been rehearsing the Sibelius Second Symphony, working out as strenuously as a boxer in preparation for a tour with the orchestra to Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, and California. But for a lunchtime interview he has changed from his conductor's clothes (drenched from the rehearsal) to a blue-gray tweed jacket, finely striped blue and white shirt, blue silk tie, and flannel trousers.
He talks in fluent Russian, thick and pungent as borsch, and prefers to have his executive assistant, Nadia Efremov, translate into polished English sentences his reflections on what some would call a life of ''creative exile.''
''My connection with my people has been strengthened,'' he says, speaking of that exile, ''because I think that with these actions, not just toward me but toward other artists, the Soviet government removes itself even further from the people.''
He doesn't look like a criminal. But in the USSR, fraternizing with Rostropovich is considered a criminal act. Such an attitude by the Soviet government ''doesn't take us away from the people,'' he explains; ''it just removes itself. I didn't stop loving my people. I devote all of my time to music and still keep trying to help all the people who are in need of help whom we meet. And I've become more deeply religious since that time. I'm very satisfied with my life, which is full of music, work, and now full of friends.''
It's an attitude he shares with other exiles. ''Despite the fact that we are nostalgic for the Soviet Union,'' says Maxim Shostakovich (the composer's son), ''we have found our second home.''
Victoria Mullova, a violinist whom Rostropovich championed at a press conference here when she defected from the Soviet Union in July, agrees. She says that under the Soviet government ''my career was pushed down all the time'' and that ''I had only a few concerts. Here I can choose what music to play, and I can record music.''
The ''criminal'' Rostropovich and his wife (Galina Vishnevskaya, the celebrated soprano) left the Soviet Union on an exit visa in 1974 - when, as he once said, ''I did not exist as an artist'' anymore. The Soviet government had banned their concerts abroad and put them in ''artistic quarantine'' because they had defended writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn and sheltered him in their home.
Clearly, the quarantine didn't work. Rostropovich is still often called the world's greatest cellist. And as a conductor, he is ''mercurial,'' writes Joseph McLellan, a Washington Post music critic. ''Rostropovich the conductor must still be considered a promising talent - often brilliant, always unpredictable.'' McLellan adds that Russian music seems to bring out Rostropovich's genius. Audiences and critics agree that Rostropovich has enriched and burnished the sound of the National Symphony, augmenting it with new talent.