The first time I met Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist and conductor who died last week, was in March or April of 1985. Studying at SUNY Stony Brook, I had traveled down to Washington, D.C., to audition for the National Symphony; Rostropovich was its music director.
I had taken a number of auditions before, and was getting used to both the cattle-call and lottery aspects of them. There’s nothing quite as unnatural as an orchestra audition. You go out and play snippets of music behind a screen, occasionally hearing an instruction or request from a disembodied voice somewhere out in the auditorium.
The backstage culture every orchestra for which I auditioned to that point had seemed less than happy. Polite, perhaps, but not particularly pleasant, and the way that the low-level members of each orchestra’s personnel staff dealt with those auditioning was impersonal.
At the NSO, it was different. The personnel manager and all the staff seemed, well, friendly. Even with all the nervous cellists around, it struck me as a pleasant atmosphere. I didn’t have a sense that I’d played particularly better in the first round than I had at any other audition, so I was relieved when I was informed that I had been passed on. To my delighted surprise, I was told that I’d received a high enough score that should there be a semi-final round, I was exempt, and would go straight to the finals.
The day of the finals came. I don’t remember how many of us there were—a very small handful, certainly, perhaps just two. There was an excellent pianist to play with, and ample time to rehearse. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations for my concerto; the pianist explained that Rostropovich would listen to the theme and first two variations, then have me skip to the last two. (I was quite relieved that I had practiced the whole thing!)
And sure enough, that is what happened. After the second variation I heard that unique voice call out, “thank you . . . variations 7 and 8, please.” They went well, and then I played the various excerpts,. My audition was over. The pianist told me, and the assistant conductor, Andrew Litton, with whom I’d known when we were both students at Juilliard, concurred (either sincerely or politely, I’m not sure) that I had played the “best final variation” of anyone who had ever auditioned for the NSO with the Tchaikovsky.
After the deliberations came the news, delivered gently and kindly: I didn’t get the job. David Hardy, my former Peabody classmate and then the orchestra’s associate principal cellist, came out and shook my hand, and told me it had been a very difficult decision.
I took my cello down to the Kennedy Center parking lot and was getting ready to leave when the thought occurred to me that I had never met Rostropovich, long a hero, and that perhaps this could be my chance. The general vibe had been very nice, and Slava was well known for being a warm fellow. Maybe he’d be willing to at least shake my hand. So I went back up, and told one of the staff that Mr. Rostropovich had long been my hero, and I’d very much appreciate it if I could have the opportunity to meet him, just for a moment. A call was made, and within minutes I was sent to his office.
He came out and gave me a hug. “I congratulate you on being great cellist!” he exclaimed. (No one, except my mother, had ever said anything that unreservedly complimentary about my playing.) “Unfortunately for you, other guy was greater today!” (What a brilliant way to handle the situation, I now realize: he was boosting me up even as he let me know there would be no arguing the result.)
I laughed, and he asked me with whom I studied. I told him Bernard Greenhouse. “Oh, Bernie is wonderful, wonderful! His trio just make great success in Europe. Now, Eric, what piece you play in finals?” I told him the Tchaikovsky. And then he launched in to about a 10-minute, detail discussion of virtually every passage I had played. I kick myself now that I didn’t write it all down. What I remember clearly, though, is about the seventh variation. “Must have more imagination!” was the theme of his remarks.
“More imagination.” That was one of the keys of Rostropovich’s success as a teacher and, I’m sure, colleague and mentor. He didn’t tell me how to play. He didn’t tell me that this particular variation, of a piece he virtually owned in the collective minds of cellists everywhere, should go faster or slower or louder or softer or be more on the a string or on the d string or that I should sink in more with the bow or have a wider or narrower vibrato. No, the greatest-cellist-in-the-world gave me a hug, told me I was great, and exhorted me to make greater use of my imagination. In a sense, he was telling me to more fully be me.
And then he gave me another hug, some kisses, and sent me on my way.
It was more than a nice brush-off; I felt acknowledged, empowered, and inspired. It’s the only time I ever lost a competition or audition and left feeling I’d won.
Driving back, it seemed obvious to me then that it was Rostropovich’s warmth and friendliness that made the his staff so much warmer are positive than that of other orchestras I’d visited. How could one have him for a boss and not end up nicer as a result?