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Mstislav Rostropovich, 80, conductor

Cellist fought for rights of Soviet-era dissidents

Cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, considered one of the finest cellists of his era, died April 27 in Moscow of intestinal cancer. He was 80.

He had returned to Russia last month after years of living in Paris.

Rostropovich stirred souls with playing that was both intense and seemingly effortless. He fought for the rights of Soviet-era dissidents and later triumphantly played Bach suites below the crumbling Berlin Wall.

In his last public appearance, at his birthday celebration in the Kremlin on March 27, Rostropovich was frail but still able to show his capacity for joy and generosity.

“I feel myself the happiest man in the world,” he said. “I will be even more happy if this evening will be pleasant for you.”

President Vladimir Putin called Rostropovich’s death “a huge loss for Russian culture” and expressed condolences to his loved ones.

Rostropovich, who was known by his friends as “Slava,” was considered by many to be the successor to Pablo Casals as the world’s greatest cellist.

A bear of a man who hugged practically anyone in sight, he was an effusive rather than an intimidating maestro, a teacher who nurtured Jacqueline du Pre among many other great cellists.

Rostropovich’s sympathies against the Communist Party leaders of his homeland started with the Stalin-era denunciations of Shostakovich and Prokofiev.

Under Leonid Brezhnev’s regime, Rostropovich and his wife, the Bolshoi Opera soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, sheltered the dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in their country house in the early 1970s.

After Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Rostropovich wrote an open letter protesting the official Soviet vilification of the author.

“Explain to me please, why in our literature and art (that) so often, people absolutely incompetent in this field have the final word?” Rostropovich asserted in the letter that went unpublished.

The by the cellist and his wife for cultural freedom resulted in the cancellation of concerts, foreign tours and recording projects. Finally, in 1974, they fled to Paris with their two daughters. Four years later, their Soviet citizenship was revoked.

But in 1989, as the Berlin Wall was being torn down, Rostropovich showed up with his cello and played Bach cello suites amid the rubble. The next year, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and he made a triumphant return to Russia to perform with Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra, where he was music director from 1977 to 1994.

When hard-line Communists tried to overthrow then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, Rostropovich rushed back to Moscow without a visa and spent days in the Russian parliament building to join those protesting the coup attempt.

In his early to mid-70s, he still had the energy of a middle-aged man. He recorded the six Bach solo suites for the first time when he was 70. Five years later, he performed 16 concerts in 11 cities in 28 days, crossing the United States twice and logging nearly 10,000 miles.

Ever the bon vivant with a big smile and twinkling blue eyes, he was known for his love of women and drink.

Born in Baku in then-Soviet Azerbaijan, his mother was a pianist. His grandfather and father, Leopold, were cellists. One memorable photo shows him as an infant cradled in his father’s cello case. He started playing the piano at age 4 and took up the cello at about 7, later studying at the Moscow Conservatory.

He made his public debut as a cellist in 1942 at age 15, and gained wide notice in the West nine years later when the Soviets sent him to perform at a festival in Florence, Italy.

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1955, survivors include their daughters, Olga and Elena.

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