Monday 21 May 2012

“Elevated to the skies” with Slava Rostropovich

Excerpts from Chapter Fifteen:
“Elevated to the skies” with Slava Rostropovich.

When I saw “Slava” in Washington it was big hugs all round. He was playing at a Washington function for Nancy Reagan and I was painting Plácido Domingo. As we rode up on the elevator of the Watergate Hotel I gave him a little memento of the painting I made of him in 1991. A little while later a basket with a bottle of wine and a note was delivered to my room.

As I recounted this incident to one of my company in Washington, she asked me: “who is Rostropovich?”   Where could I start?  Not only was he perhaps the greatest cellist of all time. With his impetuous and charismatic personality, he was a teacher with an enormous influence on his many distinguished students world-wide, a political dissident with a passion for freedom of speech (his Soviet citizenship was revoked in 1978) who sat down and played the Bach Cello Suites as the Berlin Wall was demolished, the friend and colleague of numerous contemporary composers like Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten and many others whose works he commissioned and premiered ... and so on.  I had made several watercolour studies of Rostropovich years before the Symphony Hall commission, but this one was perhaps the most successful in capturing his intense, almost agonized expression as his fingers flew over the strings. The dark clouds above his head and the earth-coloured orchestra in the background reinforce this mood.  

It was last-minute commission from Birmingham Symphony Hall, where Slava was due to perform in 1991, so I had to work furiously on the studies leading up to the deadline. I finally had a finished version ready, late on Friday afternoon, so that I could catch the Saturday morning flight to Birmingham, just in time for a photo-shoot for the posters of Slava’s concert and to allow time for the framing of the painting.  The length of that sentence reflects my breathless condition on that Friday afternoon.  But there was a nagging feeling that some things were not quite satisfactory.  I had to get the colour of his Stradivarius right, for one thing. After several hours of worrying, I realized that there was only one thing to do: start again!  I still had a sheet of my favourite Arches Satiné watercolour paper stretched and ready. The required size of 84 x 56cm (33 x 22 inches) is quite large for a watercolour and a lot of paint has to dry before the next layer.  Thank goodness for hair-dryers.  I had learned a thing or two about hand, fingering and bow positions from my wife Vivian, who was a professional cellist. So I worked like crazy, deep into the night, until it all came together – and I caught my morning flight.  Talk about brinkmanship! They said it was one of the best of the Symphony Hall Collection so far. What is it about deadlines and creativity?
Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), watercolour 1991, 84 x 56cm


Next Monday: Written on the Wind.


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