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Conducting without a Pulse: Rostropovich Survives, Dvořák Doesn't

Mstislav Rostropovich 'conducting'What better to open a concert with than an overture to… oneself!? Good thing that Leonard Bernstein composed just such a thing for Mstislav Rostropovich in the form of the jolly, brash, multimedial, tacky Slava! (A Political Overture). It goes to the credit of Maestro Rostropovich that he could conduct the whole thing without blushing – not even when the orchestra members have to shout an adulatory “Slava!” at him. (I think this was supposed to be performed to him, not by him… and originally it was his dog's name, not Mstislav’s own, that was yelled out. Back when it was still a joke.) Churchillian-sounding faux-political speeches interpolated with totalitarian crowds cheering are played from the speakers while the orchestra runs empty loops for a while. All that is not necessarily saying that Slava! isn’t fun to listen to… it is. Much in the way that your funny, slightly trashy, crude cousin from down-south is. You just wouldn’t want him telling those jokes in good company.

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B. Britten, Sea Interludes, Young Person's Guide..., Andrew Davis, BBC SO
The contrast could not have been greater to the polished, sophisticated Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. While the NSO’s rendition under Rostropovich’s mechanical baton left everyone safely in the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall, rather than taking them out to sea, it’s such great music that Britten gave us, it was still gratifying to hear. The fourth interlude was played the best, although I would not have given it the title “Storm” in this particular interpretation.

The work that many potential audience members stayed away for was Dutilleux’s Correspondances, a short song cycle of originally four, now five, songs to very different texts. Henri Dutilleux is France’s Elliot Carter, almost as old, almost as active. He is more accessible than most Carter… or at least less inaccessible. More or less tonal (but not enough for conservative audiences to care), he has moments of great orchestral, ethereal beauty, like in the third and added fourth movements based on short Rainer Maria Rilke poems. The treatment of the voice, however, is modernist-unoriginal and made sure that the works’ appeal was not to broad. The second part starts out beautifully, too. That movement is (not a big surprise, this) titled “A Slava et Galina” and based on a letter of Solshenitzyn thanking Rostropovich and wife (Galina Vishnevskaya) profusely for their self-sacrificing help. At least it isn’t dedicated to the former cellist: it’s dedicated to Dawn Upshaw (and Simon Rattle), the singer with the NSO in this run of concerts. She sang expertly, as one would expect, with her character-rich and strong voice, solid in all its vast reaches: a joy, more or less no matter what she sings.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, For the NSO, a Night With Fine Old Friends (Washington Post, April 28)

Charles T. Downey, DCist Goes to the Symphony (DCist, April 28)
To keep the audience members in their seats until the end (Britten and Dutilleux are not acceptable Washington fare), Dvořák’s 8th Symphony was programmed. Possibly as good as the overplayed “From the New World,” it is a work that is easy on the ears, occasionally grandiose, rightly popular with concert-goers. Until tonight, that was. Listening to what Rostropovich did with this work was puzzling. Literally and metaphorically speaking, he turned it into the longest Dvořák symphony I ever had to sit through. Plodding along at insufferably slow speeds, he made sure that musical lines disappeared and that any sense of rhythm here or heroism there were fastidiously excised; emotional subtleties plowed under. The brass fanfare opening the last movement smacked of tin, the following strings sounded better. But the orchestra should not be blamed for this. (Except that they should not only not have looked at Rostropovich, they should have outright ignored his instructions.) Anyone to attend today, Friday, or tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM will come away with a greater appreciation for Leonard Slatkin.