A Musician Recalls Playing Under Rostropovich

Mstislav Rostropovich left his mark both on the world of classical music and the musicians he played with. Music commentator Miles Hoffman played under Rostropovich for seven years. He tells Steve Inskeep that the maestro's hands were notable for more than their ability to work the cello.

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(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're listening now to music played by Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist who has died at the age of 80. His death was announced today in Moscow. Slava, as he was known, was a performer, a conductor, a teacher, and a mentor. He inspired many musicians, including NPR's classical music commentator Miles Hoffman, who's on the line, and who played with him, played under his direction for seven years.

Miles, what was he like?

MILES HOFFMAN: Oh, Steve, what was he like? Whenever people used to ask me what was Slava like, I used to say, well, some people are a little bit of everything. Slava is a lot of everything. And I think that's the best way to describe him. He was very changeable. But he was enormous. He was an enormous personality. He was just a fabulous personality in every direction.

INSKEEP: We've got a short piece of tape from Rostropovich where you get a sense of his enthusiasm. He was asked about conducting his approach to a piece of music.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Mr. MSTISLAV ROSTROPOVICH (Famous Cellist): I thought make fire in my heart, in my body because before I make a beat, I imagine these sounds before I make a beat.

INSKEEP: Making fire in his heart. How does he then pass on that fire to you as a musician?

HOFFMAN: Oh, it was inevitable. It was natural. It just came from him. There was no way for you not to catch that fire. It's great to hear his voice, Steve. You know, Slava had an inimitable accent. Although it was very inimitable, I used to imitate it all the time. And the funny thing about this man was that he was you hear from his English that it was a heavily accented, almost broken English. But it was - he managed to be eloquent in about three different broken languages, just extraordinary that way.

And you know, he's a funny guy probably because he was physically very awkward. And he himself used to say, you know, I real ugly guy. But his hands were the most beautiful hands I've ever seen. They were long. They were wide. They were gorgeous. They were something that a painter might have painted. And anything that had to do with his hands was gorgeous, whether it was his cello playing or his piano playing. You know, he's a fabulous pianist. He used to accompany his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, in her recital. He would play piano. He would play the entire recital by memory. He had an extraordinary musical mind.

So he was just - and he's an amazing teacher too. He used to get master classes, private master classes for the members of the national symphony. And those master classes left I think an indelible impression on everybody who participated. Certainly, they did on me, and I still tell the stories that Slava told in those master classes. I - everything I ever heard him say I use in my own teaching, not to mention in my own playing whenever I can.

INSKEEP: Miles, good to talk with you.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman. He mentioned that Rostropovich was eloquent in about three different languages. He was also eloquent politically. He protested against the government of his native Soviet Union. He was in voluntary exile from that country for many years but was able to return after the fall of the Soviet Union. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday. Let's leave you with some of his music.

(Soundbite of music)

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