ICS EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW!!!

CONVERSATION WITH OLGA ROSTROPOVICH

by Tim Janof


Olga (on the right) with her parents in 1990.
Photo A.F.P.
This brief interview is with Mstislav Rostropovich's daughter, Olga, who attended the 2003 National Cello Congress in Tempe, Arizona.

TJ: Do you still play the cello?

OR: Not anymore.

Did you quit because of the pressure of being the daughter of Mstislav Rostropovich?

Of course, I felt the pressure of being his daughter, but I dealt with it. I mostly quit playing because I got married and had children, and I knew that I couldn't be both a performing cellist and a good wife and mother. Somehow my mother, Galina Vishnevskaya, was able to do both. She was a prima donna at the Bolshoi Theatre Opera, the wife of a very successful man, and the mother of his children. I don't know how she did it.

What is your sister, Elena, doing these days? She was a pianist.

She has four children and lives in Paris.

Didn't you study with Dimitry Markevitch, the cellist and historian?

Yes, but it was only for a short time. My family and I had just left Russia and my sister and I were placed in a convent in Switzerland while my parents performed throughout the world. I would go to Dimitry Markevitch's house for a lesson each week.

Did you study with your father too?

Yes, though not consistently. We worked on much of the standard repertoire, including the Bach Suites, the Dvorak Concerto, the first Shostakovich First Concerto, the Haydn C Major Concerto, the Saint-Saëns Concerto, the Beethoven Triple, my recital programs, and many other pieces too numerous to mention. He would always listen to me before my concerts.

Did he teach you the way he teaches in master classes, using imagery and stories to stimulate your musical imagination?

Not at all. He spent a lot of time discussing technical issues. And he never held back with me. He had extremely high expectations and he made no effort to "behave" or be charming and witty. My lessons were more like battles than cello lessons at times. The father I knew wasn't the same man that everybody else knew.

When you were a teenager, your father came home unexpectedly and found you reading a book instead of practicing. What happened?

He had gone out for awhile. Thinking I had a few hours to myself, I decided to read a book instead of practice, since I didn't enjoy practicing all that much. As luck would have it, my father forgot something, or at least he pretended to forget something, and he returned home. When he opened the door, there I was lying on the sofa with my book. He became so furious that he grabbed my cello and started chasing me around the house with it, ordering me to stop running so that he could kill me. I quickly ran downstairs and out the front door, but that didn't stop him, so I ran along the circular road that surrounded our cluster of houses, and ran by Dimitry Shostakovich, who was taking his daily stroll, trying to concentrate on his composing. Shostakovich pleaded with my father as he ran by, still waving my cello in the air, "Slavachka, have a fear of a God! Have a fear of God!" trying to calm him down. Needless to say, that was quite a scene.

Did you study with somebody besides your father?

Yes, he was never my primary teacher. I first studied with his assistant, then I studied with my aunt, Galina Kosolupova. Few people know that Kosolupova was my aunt and that Simion Kosolupov was my uncle.

You must have been a good cellist with that kind of training.

I performed the Shostakovich First Concerto, which is dedicated to my father, with an orchestra that was conducted by him. I must have been pretty good.

I heard some amazing stories about your father's memory at the National Cello Congress. These stories can be found in my report on this congress in the ICS library.

His memory is extraordinary, and it extends beyond music. He remembers conversations like a machine, and he could take a car apart piece by piece and put it back together with no problem.

Your father doesn't like practicing, does he?

Well, who does? He doesn't like it, and he never did. But he has such a high level of concentration when he's studying something that it seems like his brain is going to boil. He can do just about anything he sets his mind to, whether learning a concerto in a single day or memorizing poetry. He's a remarkable man.

Were you around when Jacqueline du Pré went to Russia to study with your father in 1966?

Yes. I was just a little girl, but I remember walking into my father's class at the Conservatory and experiencing her incredibly emotional playing. She played the Schumann Concerto and, I promise you, there was not a single dry eye in the room -- not the accompanist, not my father, and not the forty or fifty others in the room. It was absolutely unbelievable.

You said that your father once told you, "No woman should play the cello." That's a strange thing to say, given that some of his most successful students are women, like Natalia Gutman and Karine Georgian.

He didn't mean it, of course. That was said in the heat of an argument with me about whether I should pursue a career as a cellist. He was referring to my unique situation of being the daughter of Mstislav Rostropovich, and the pressures that I would endure by being constantly compared with him. He was just trying to protect me.

How is it that your father owned an apartment in Moscow during his time of exile? He had stripped of his citizenship.

The building that housed the apartment was built for composers, which meant that only a composer could buy our apartment. The composers all knew my father, of course. Even though the KGB tried to sell it to many of them, none would buy it out of respect for my father.

Why didn't the government simply take it away?

I suspect that it would have created too much of a scandal, so they decided to keep things quiet. They had enough scandals on their hands already.

Dimitry Markevitch told me that he saw your father drive up in a black Mercedes with Moscow license plates when your parents first dropped you off in Switzerland. He wondered if this was a clue that your father may have been a fairly powerful man in the Soviet establishment before his exile.

My father was a world-famous cellist, so, of course, he enjoyed privileges with the money he earned. We always had four cars because my father loved them so much: a Mercedes, Land Rover, Volkswagen, and an Opel. But it wasn't a black Mercedes, it was a very dark burgundy Mercedes that we drove from Moscow. We usually kept it at the house of the great musical benefactor, Paul Sacher.

What was Shostakovich like as a person?

He was a very nervous type, but who wouldn't be during those times? He had a very dry and caustic sense of humor too.

Was he composing all the time?

It seemed like it. He always seemed to be thinking about his music on his daily walks. My parents told me that he would rarely compose with a paper and pencil in hand. He first developed a concept in his head, but he wouldn't write it down until he had worked it out to his satisfaction.

I read an article whose thesis was that Shostakovich's music wasn't as rebellious as many think, that there weren't really any secret messages against the regime in his compositions. In fact, he may have been more compliant than "counter-revolutionary."

Even if you complied with the government back then, you didn't do so voluntarily. With a genius like Shostakovich, it must have created a huge internal conflict that tore his heart apart. I believe that he tried to express that conflict and his hatred of the system in the only way he knew how, which was through his music. Even in his compliance, there was protest.

Is it true that your father felt competitive with Piatigorsky?

Of course not. That's like saying that my father felt competitive with Pablo Casals. How ridiculous! They were very different people from different times, and they certainly had different talents. My father, as President of the Tchaikovsky Competition, always invited Piatigorsky to be a member of the jury. Would he do that if he felt competitive with Piatigorsky? My father was always very gracious with his colleagues, and he always had good relations with cellists such as Pierre Fournier, whom he loved, and Paul Tortelier.

My father has never been jealous of the success of others. It isn't in his character to waste his time worrying about the careers of his colleagues. He loves music too much for that. His career was never his primary interest, it came as a side-benefit of the pursuit of his musical ideals. He's been having too much fun to think about superficial things like conquering the music world. If anything, it is other cellists who have been jealous of my father's career.

I've heard that there was quite a rivalry between your father and Daniil Shafran. They shared First Prizes in competitions on more than one occasion.

There was never a sense of rivalry on my father's part, not to mention that my father was simply more talented.

You were around when, in 1970, your father wrote that courageous letter in defense of Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian author, who was being criticized by the Soviet establishment. That must have been a stressful time for your family.

We were not afraid, even though we knew that we were in a life and death situation. It was not a game. We were fully aware that the KGB was following us wherever we went, which was something we didn't take lightly. We had to be very careful.

Everybody in Russia knew that Solzhenitsyn lived in our house, but my sister and I weren't allowed to mention it to anybody, since this would be perceived as thumbing our noses at the government. A slip of the tongue and our parents would have lost their lives. Because of this experience, I learned very early on the value of friendship and loyalty. Loyalty, friendship, and commitment were three very important things in my family. Once you committed yourself to a particular friendship, you went as far with it as it would take you, provided that the other person didn't betray you.

Your parents have been married for almost fifty years. That's quite remarkable, especially considering how much traveling they both did throughout their careers, and considering that your father is well known as being a man of "Five F's: Fiddles, Food, Females, Friends, and Fodka."

He is a passionate man and he has a real lust for life, and his marriage is stronger because of it. I'll give you an example of how strong their marriage is. My father was conducting at a two-week festival earlier this year in Lincoln Center. It so happened that one of the concerts was on the day before his birthday, his birthday being March 27. After the concert on the 26th, my father and I went back to his hotel room because we wanted to spend time together away from the crowds. It was almost midnight and I said that I wanted to go home. He said, "No, no, you aren't going anywhere, because it will be my birthday in fifteen minutes," so I waited with him. One minute before midnight, the phone rang. It was my mother calling from Moscow. She had timed her call in such a way that she could call him literally one minute before midnight, New York time, in order to wish him a happy birthday as the day arrived. They then had a long, tender conversation. Now that is profound love and commitment. After being married for almost 50 years, you'd think she would have waited until later in the day, or just have some flowers sent. What they have together is very precious and nothing can destroy it.

5/18/03


Direct correspondence to the appropriate ICS Staff
Webmaster: Eric Hoffman
Director: John Michel
Copyright © 1995- Internet Cello Society