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Saturday, April 28, 2007
Rostropovich and me
Listening to:Garcia and Grisman
Weather:53, trying to rain
Another post about a dead truly great modern cellist. Mstislav Rostropovich died in this week. He was 80.

We called him Slava, and he loomed large for me growing up in many ways. First, I first took up the cello when I was 10 or 11 years old, and that would be right around 1977, the year Slava became the conductor of the National Symphony in DC. I grew up in Woodbridge VA, a suburb of DC, and was fortunate to have strong support of the arts in our public schools. In 5th grade Mizzette Adams came into my classroom and brought some stringed instruments. She seemed really cool and interesting. She demonstrated violin and cello and viola and bass and asked if any of us would like to learn to play. She took down names. With each name she asked, what instrument do you think you'd like to choose? I thought I might have a better chance of getting an A if I played whatever she played, honestly, so when she said she was a cellist, I picked cello. The rest is history, my history, anyway.

But let's digress for a moment. She soon she changed her last name to Fuenzalida, perhaps her maiden name? I was too young to have much of a clue, and the social environment of the times and of that whitey white DC suburbia made it such that "gay" just meant happy, but in retrospect I'm thinking she might have been a formerly-married lesbian. Another vital thing about her that, looking back, I'm trying to surmise from clues is was she a latina? Fuenzalida sure sounds like it, but what about the name Mizzette? I think in the back of my mind I thought she was jewish, but that was a more familiar kind of category for me at that time, so who knows why I thought that. Looking back at her is becoming more of a study of me and my history and perspectives, now, isn't it? OK, back to our regularly scheduled program -

So I got assigned a cello from our school's slightly banged-up collection of instruments, and Ms. Adams taught me how to get it in and out of its carry bag, and how to sit properly with it. I got to take it home to practice, which I never actually did much. During school we kept the instruments behind cabinet doors under the stage in the Multipurpose Room (gym, cafeteria, and music room all in one). She taught us how to pizzicato, what the strings were tuned to, how to read music in bass clef. Then we finally got to pick up the bow and squeak away with that. What I remember most is that she made me feel like I was especially musically talented. This was awesome to me. I wonder now, did the other kids get that from her, too? Was I really special, or did we all get that groovy impression from her about ourselves? I must confess that I was pretty confident about my superiority in general at that time, I thought I was smarter than my teachers and than most but not all the kids, and whatnot. But I don't think music was something I thought of as a particular piece of my personal fabric until Ms. Adams led me to believe I had that kind of potential. I had always played a little piano, we had one in the house and though I'd never taken lessons. But my grandmother's roomate Leola Anderson was church organist and pianist and she had always given me an impromptu lesson when I'd visit, since I was pretty small, I think. And I just plinked around at home playing by ear a lot. So playing instruments wasn't new to me, but it wasn't till Ms. Adams that I realized I had a knack for it. This will turn out to be huge for me, because later I would go from a fairly lousy highschool student overnight to a straight A college student because I majored in music.

But back to 1977. This was smack in the middle of the Cold War, a time when we school kids were taught that Soviet Russia was our enemy, that dastardly and contagious Communism was the great smoldering threat to our freedom and prosperity. We feared those heathens would start a nuclear war against us and we'd all go bald and puke ourselves to death in a devastating nuclear winter if we weren't incinerated in the initial bombing. Which we probably would be, since we lived so close to the seat of federal government, their natural target, just a few miles outside the hallowed Beltway. During the Olympics there would be Russian and Romanian and East German athletes who would "defect" to the US, a very mysterious, exciting, and dangerous escape from their horrible breadlines and ragged gray poverty-stricken tightly-controlled existences to the milk and honey of the great free usa. That's the way I understood it.

Slava was one of these free spirits, an artist who defected and became the conductor of the National Symphony (NSO). He was also a famous cellist, as had been the previous conductor Antal Dorati and other famous conductors like Andre Previn. By the time I was in about 7th grade I was studying with Loren Stephenson, a cellist in the NSO. Mom and I would trek into the city to go to their concerts at the Kennedy Center. Slava seemed pretty smiley in interviews, and passionate with the baton. But the way he held his cello was just funky. It was like a table out in front of him. He had a special very long endpin that was bent at about a 45 degree angle. I remember once at a cello masterclass (was it Starker?) I attended, one of my classmates got totally reamed by the master. "You know how a salesman looks at his calendar and says, it's Monday I must be in St. Louis? Well I see cellists with this ridiculous posture, bent endpin, cello splayed out like some kind of table, and I know I'm in DC." He explained that no one planet earth should play this way except Slava, who was actually some kind of mutant with arms so long his knuckles dragged when he walked. No one else has an excuse for this silly bent endpin. Ouch. Then after that tirade my poor classmate had to get it together and play his piece for criticism in front of us all. Well, Duane was a pompous dork anyway, so he could take getting knocked down a few pegs, I'm thinking. But still, sheesh.

Then when I was a freshman in highschool I auditioned for the Prince William Symphony Orchestra (PWSO) and got in. It was pretty cool, and lovely little community orchestra conducted and directed by a sexy young Cuban violinist named Luis Haza. Another defector? He also played in the NSO. And he was a passionate and wonderful conductor, always inspired me to play well to please him, one of the marks of a great conductor. And amazingly he with totally fluent with fixed-do solfege, this was a mindblower for me. Anyhoo, our fledgling little community orch was poised for greatness, and when Luis took over he organized a benefit concert with none other than Slava himself playing the Haydn C major (or was it the D major?) with us. Hell yeah! I got to play that concert, though there was a smaller string section for the Haydn and since I was in the back of the cello section I didn't get to actually play with the big man on that tune. But it was still a major brush with stardom for me, very exciting, and I remember that night we had a reception at a local watering hole and restaurant in Occoquan where I proceeded to get shitfaced on my first Long Island Iced Teas. I sneaked away from my mom to go out to the car with my boyfriend Larry (can't even remember his last name) and smoke a doob. I was 14 but I think I had told him I was 17. But that's a whole 'nother post for another day. That night was also prom night at my highschool, and at 3am my buddies Nev and Ashley on their way home from prom saw our lights still on and stopped in. I think I mixed up another jarful of Long Islands and we all had a round.

So I grew up with Slava as one of my big rockstars, a freedom fighter, promoter of the arts, seriously amazing and passionate cellist with his own distinctive style, and smiley dude with an exotic heavy accent. When I left for college of course my fellow music majors probably knew who Slava was, but I was a bit surprised that he was not well-known among the non-musicians. One thing I've learned since I left the DC metro burbs is that the beltway-ites think they are the center of the universe, controlling the government of the most powerful nation on earth, and yet the vast majority of americans don't really give too much of a shit about what DC thinks is important.

It's actually been years since I had thought about Slava when I heard he died last week. I hope he had a groovy life, and I appreciate the groove he passed my way.

permalink posted by cat 9:26 AM

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Rostropovich and me