On the way to the airport, I got to talking to the cab driver. When he found out I was going to the United States, he unexpectedly launched into a recitation, actually more like a rant, of what he believed life in America was like. It turned out that the “Americanos” were a greedy bunch, constantly spying on one another, informing on their neighbors, and so afraid of everything that they rarely left their houses even to visit friends. I protested that Americans are a friendly, outgoing people who give to charity and often serve as volunteers for various causes. His comment on that was in the spirit of Chekhov’s “learned neighbor,” whose conclusion to any information outside his realm was: “That’s not true because it can never be true!”
He was clearly a victim of the propaganda machine. Incidentally, this is a mirror image of the classical Western canard about bears in the streets of Moscow. Today though, it has a different name, one that is more sinister. It is called the “information war.” And politicians have a new slogan, too: “To win a race, you’ll have to win the information war first.” But as in any war, it’s the civilian population that loses—all of us, on both sides. Our minds are manipulated. Love of our neighbor is rooted out and destroyed. We are becoming suspicious, fearful, and aggressive, emotions that used to lurk in the darkest corners of our being. But we must resist. We must fight back.
These are some of the thoughts that occupied my mind during the long hours between St. Petersburg and Washington, where young musicians and music-lovers of all ages were gathering in mid-October to take part in a week-long tribute to a great Russian and American musician, Maestro Mstislav Rostropovich. We could not know as yet that the week of celebrations, inspired by a great man, would turn out to be not only a triumph of music, but the triumph of mutual understanding and spiritual bonding.
The idea of bringing together friends and admirers of Rostropovich and his art belongs to his older daughter, Olga, who is carrying on one of her father’s most important causes. She is president of the foundation he set up to support gifted young musicians. It was decided to hold this event in the U.S. capital to mark the 75th anniversary of Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, which Rostropovich called his prime “musical child.” For seventeen years the maestro worked with his orchestra, building it up and nurturing it until it was one of the best, and best-known, musical collectives in the world.
The organization of the week’s events was shouldered by the International Firebird Arts Foundation, co-founded by Xenia Woyevodsky and Liya Jacobsen. The plans at first called for a single concert featuring young musicians supported by the Rostropovich Foundation at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. But it turned out that Slava (the affectionate name by which America knew Rostropovich), had such legions of friends and admirers of his art that the program was enlarged and included events in different venues throughout Washington, D.C.
Then came August 2008. South Ossetia heightened political tensions in the world, followed soon after by the financial crisis. It was becoming clear that the week’s tribute to the Maestro may have to be canceled. And only a very few people refused to be daunted. They were constantly buoyed by the words of Slava’s great teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, words that Slava liked to repeat , “We are soldiers of music. We will fiercely resist. We’ll play on to the end!” But now only a miracle could save the program. And that miracle happened!
The memorial week began on October 12 with a solemn requiem for Mstislav Rostropovich at Washington’s St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral officiated by Bishop Merkury of the Moscow Patriarchate. Rostropovich worshipped here all seventeen years of his “American Period.” Together with his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, he donated a set of church bells with the names of seven great Russian musicians who were exiled at various times.
October 14, the day that the reception at the Russian Embassy was to take place, was probably the most anxious for the organizers, who worried that the political situation would keep people away from the event. But once again, Rostropovich’s name worked its magic and the ballroom was filled with an enthusiastic audience of Russians and Americans, prominent figures in business and the arts.
The opening remarks by the new Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak, dispelled any remaining fears. He spoke warmly and very personally about Rostropovich, with whom it turns out he and his wife were already well acquainted. “He used to stay with us in Brussels.” Sergei Kislyak was Russia’s ambassador to Belgium from 1998 to 2003. “He insisted that I use the ‘ty,’ the familiar form of ‘you,’ when talking to him. I found this pretty hard to do, though—he was a genius, yet behaved as if we were equals.”
After the speeches came the music, and what music! Olga Rostropovich introduced the performers. The Foundation that supports gifted young musicians finds them all over Russia. The youngest is pianist Vsevolod Brigida, eleven years old. He was the maestro’s favorite and was given the honor of opening the concert program. All the youthful virtuosi left the audience open-mouthed with admiration. Delightful too were the young singers from Galina Vishnevskaya’s center for operatic performers. A nice surprise was provided by the appearance of American musicians from the National Symphony Orchestra who worked with Rostropovich. And when the chorus of the Washington Choral Arts Society under the direction of Norman Scribner performed Rachmaninov’s “O Virgin, Mother of God, Rejoice,” in Russian, a work particularly beloved by Rostropovich, it was greeted with a standing ovation, many in the audience unable to hold back their tears. The thought was foremost: “Now, at this moment, nothing else matters, not your nationality, not your profession, nor how rich you are or what your social position might be, we all feel that this is a moment of real inspiration, even if it only lasts a few seconds. And what is remarkable is that a feeling of unity happened at a site dominated by official politics.
The following day, October 15, the audience at the Kennedy Center saw and heard more exciting and affecting performances, when 16 artists—instrumentalists under the guidance of the Rostropovich Foundation, and singers of the Vishnevskaya opera school—appeared on the stage in turn. The wealth of talent literally took your breath away, truly mature artistry in such youthful performers! A specially warm welcome was accorded Sergei (Seriozha) Mikhailenko of Novosibirsk, who played the marimba, a rare instrument similar to a xylophone, with two little sticks in each hand. The skin between the fingers of the 14-year-old musician were often rubbed raw, and he observed wryly that he might never be able to wear a wedding band. That did not stop him, though, from long hours of practice on his beloved marimba.
And once again the audience was on its feet, applauding the musicians. In the front row were Metropolitan Hillarion, First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia and Natalia Kislyak, wife of the Russian Ambassador. At that point, Olga Rostropovich stepped up on the stage, hugged her young protégés, and obviously emotional, spoke to the audience in a low voice: “I want to thank you all. Right now, I feel that Papa is here with us.”
It is not only the Russians and Americans who admire the great musician and think of him as one of their own. Mstislav Rostropovich was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the wife of the president of that country, Mehriban Aliyeva, compiled and published a book, “Rostropovich, a Great Man of Baku,” with numerous rare photographs. On October 16, Azerbaijan’s Embassy arranged a presentation of this book, as well as a unique collection of photographs, at the Library of Congress. Ambassador Yashar Aliyev remarked that Rostropovich never lost touch with his fellow countrymen in Azerbaijan. Dr. James Billington, Librarian of Congress, a connoisseur and passionate enthusiast of Russian culture, spoke of his friendship with the Maestro. The evening concluded with the viewing of the Emmy-award winning film, “Soldiers of Music. Rostropovich Returns to Russia.” It tells the story of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya’s first arrival back to Russia in 1990, after 16 years in exile. The camera followed them closely as they walked around on home grounds, places they had not seen for many years and met with friends they had been separated from all that time. One could see how hard this was for them. To the question asked by an American newsman, “Why didn’t you sign that letter against Solzhenitzyn? You wouldn’t have lost all this,” Rostropovich answered simply, “If I had done that, I couldn’t go on living.” These words revealed his very core as a human being and gave a clear view of his soul. The strength of his personality was here, even after death, able to unite people that were capable of love for others and service to their high ideals.
Meanwhile the “Rostropovich nestlings” were everywhere in demand. Washingtonians were eager to show them around the city, entertain them, give them presents, and have them over to their homes.
There were meetings with music students and other youngsters their own age at St. Stephens & St. Agnes Upper School in Alexandria, Virgina. Both groups played a piece by Rachmaninov, a great Russian composer whose life was also divided between Russia and America. Both groups were excited at the chance to meet each other and vowed to continue on with their new relationship at a distance. And — no international tensions!
Back home in Russia, Andrei Yaroshinsky wrote a letter of thanks: “Our trip was absolutely fantastic. It was so full of human warmth and love, of kindness and the wish to give each other joy! Every one of us, each in a different way, felt that a change had come over us, a change in the best sense of the word. The most precious thing in the world is the relations between humans. And we still feel enveloped in your sincere kindness and good wishes. Thank you—with all our hearts!!!”
Wouldn’t it be good if my cab driver in St. Petersburg could hear those words? He is, deep down, an altogether nice person, I am sure. Only he has accumulated a different kind of information, from different sources. It’s this kind of event that can break the ice in all sorts of situations; it is an antidote to alienation and confrontation. An atmosphere of mutual warmth, not hostility, which can help resolve the worst, most critical problems in a different way. This tribute to Rostropovich has had a big response in Washington’s cultural and social communities. I am sure it will mark the beginning of large-scale Russian-American cooperation in the future.”