Commentary Magazine


Topic: conductor

Mstislav Rostropovich, 1927-2007

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, world-renowned cellist and conductor, has died. Rostropovich, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1927, made his Russian debut at 13 and his American debut (at Carnegie Hall) in 1956. He leaves behind important recordings of composers ranging from Bach to Bartók (particularly noteworthy is his 1995 recording of the former’s cello suites), as well as a National Symphony Orchestra vastly improved by his 27-year tenure as its conductor. Rostropovich, famously, had his Soviet citizenship revoked in 1978, after an eight-year-long series of public skirmishes with the Brezhnev regime over the censorship and suppression of artists and intellectuals—particularly of Rostropovich’s friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The world’s loss of Rostropovich is a serious one, for music lovers and defenders of artistic and intellectual freedom alike.

Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich, world-renowned cellist and conductor, has died. Rostropovich, born in Baku, Azerbaijan, in 1927, made his Russian debut at 13 and his American debut (at Carnegie Hall) in 1956. He leaves behind important recordings of composers ranging from Bach to Bartók (particularly noteworthy is his 1995 recording of the former’s cello suites), as well as a National Symphony Orchestra vastly improved by his 27-year tenure as its conductor. Rostropovich, famously, had his Soviet citizenship revoked in 1978, after an eight-year-long series of public skirmishes with the Brezhnev regime over the censorship and suppression of artists and intellectuals—particularly of Rostropovich’s friend Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The world’s loss of Rostropovich is a serious one, for music lovers and defenders of artistic and intellectual freedom alike.

Read Less

Boris Yeltsin’s Ambiguous Legacy

Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

Read More

Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?

Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.

Nonetheless, despised as he was at home, and in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, having few if any admirers abroad, Yeltsin still had achievements that are far more significant than many of his critics have ever been willing to acknowledge.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin was an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest Communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of Communism’s ideological inanities. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the “deep and profound” Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other Communist apparatchik.

Appointed by Gorbachev to run the Moscow party machine in 1985, at the dawn of the era of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local bureaucracy. His vigorous attacks on the establishment’s privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev’s. His rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.

Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering, and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease. By the close of 1991, when the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia’s first-ever democratically elected president.

Russia’s problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin was not always wise or stalwart. Certainly, his personal shortcomings, including his drinking, must be weighed in the balance. But Yeltsin’s real and imputed character flaws must be placed in context. Many of Yeltsin’s critics suffered from amnesia with respect to the USSR’s recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society under Communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.

Russia held more than a half-dozen democratic elections under Yeltsin’s tutelage, and his rule was followed by the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president; these were no small accomplishments for what had been recently a totalitarian regime. By the end of his presidency, he left Russia with a press that was freer and more vigorous than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. He presided over the dismantlement of a cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government. Russia, at the turn of the millennium, was no longer a military-industrial state.

It is unquestionably true that millions were thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands were unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society.

In the end, Leon Aron was quite persuasive when he argued in his biography that Yeltsin would have had to work “miracles” in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to have assumed was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was before him, and in comparison to the resurgent authoritarianism that has come after under Vladimir Putin, it did well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous legacy.

Read Less

Bookshelf

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50′s and early 60′s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.