Music for Life

Written by: Colin Anderson

Mstislav Rostropovich talks about the “Music for Life” concert on 3 October 2004 for the Yehudi Menuhin School and Great Ormond Street Children Hospital … and about Shostakovich

Being in the company of cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, ‘Slava’ as he is known with affection, is to experience a vibrant personality, a life force, one who channels his resources to each new project with total commitment. That he’s approaching being 80 years old seems irrelevant. Slava’s conducting the “Music for Life” concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday 3 October, a 7 o’clock start. The proceeds of the concert will be shared equally between the Yehudi Menuhin School, which trains talented young musicians, and Great Ormond Street Hospital, which cares for the needs of sick children. In recent months, pupils from the Menuhin School have been playing live music in the Hospital’s wards.

The concert begins with Slava conducting Elgar, a composer closely associated with Menuhin (in 1932 the young violinist famously recorded Elgar’s Concerto with Elgar himself conducting). Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro features the Yehudi Menuhin School Orchestra and the Belcea String Quartet, musicians of the future. “Of course, that for me is very important. I think music is the strongest kind of glue between people, the most uniting of the arts – to the heart. Music is great therapy for medical conditions too; in Moscow we have an orchestra made up of doctors.”

Slava recalls that Menuhin “came to Moscow first when I was a student. He played the Beethoven Concerto, and I must say that the slow movement is something I shall take to the other world; it’s unforgettable. We became great friends and played chamber music and conducted for each other. I have given masterclasses at his school.”

The “Music for Life” concert will be hosted by Simon Callow, who will read excerpts from Charles Dickens’s “Nicholas Nickleby” and from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”; these readings will be set to music written by Stephen Oliver. Barrie gave the copyright of his children’s classic to Great Ormond Street Hospital. 2004 marks Peter Pan’s centenary.

From magical escapist tales to grim reality. I turn the conversation to Dmitri Shostakovich, Slava’s close friend. Live performances of Shostakovich’s Symphonies 4 and 15, with Slava conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, have just been issued by Andante: performances of total identification. “There were coded and secret messages in his music. He asked me if I found anything about Stalin in the first cello concerto. I hadn’t. He showed me how he had used Stalin’s favourite song, from Georgia; he hid it so well, even I couldn’t trace it.”

In my opinion, and seemingly Slava’s too, Symphony No.15 is Shostakovich’s greatest. “There is an element of saying farewell in it, something he received in life he is giving back in the music.” Also in the Andante set is Shostakovich’s original beginning to Symphony No.4, which sounds more like the work’s pessimistic ending. Slava, vivid in his recollections, recalls his student days with Shostakovich. “He wanted us to be still and silent and then he would take my hand with both his hands and say thank-you: it has become much easier to live now for me. This happened a number of times; it was so natural. I don’t know what he was thinking about but he understood that it was a friend with him, silent, who would never fail him. This was the plan for my whole life; even when there was a government campaign against Shostakovich, I never failed him. Along with him, it was Britten and Prokofiev who moulded me; they are my idols.”

What inspires Slava today? “Friends! I have so many friends, and they want to see me alive – so I do it for them.” In “Music for Life”, Slava also conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra; a former Menuhin School pupil, Tasmin Little, plays Bruch’s evergreen G minor Violin Concerto, and Evgeny Kissin performs Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. Do we have too much music available, not least through the internet and the walkman? “It’s just killing time listening through earphones, and it takes away from the joy of going to a concert and enjoying it properly.”

  • Music for Life – Royal Albert Hall, Sunday 3 October at 7 o’clock
  • Box Office: 020 7589 8212 – 2 for 1 ticket offer
  • Royal Albert Hall
  • Yehudi Menuhin School
  • Great Ormond Street
  • The above article (revised) was published in “What’s On in London” on 29 September 2004 and is reproduced here with permission

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