Monday, April 30, 2007

The maestro has left the stage

This striking photo has the formal beauty of an image from Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible. We first encounter the finely-chiseled features of the dead man: his wide mouth and thin lips, almost smiling, and his pointed nose. At the same time, our eyes are attracted by the pastel-hued hippy-like band around his brow. Then our comprehension of the scene is puzzled by the four fine red-nailed fingers, which seem for an instant, weirdly, to belong to the deceased. An instant later, we realize that the face hovering above the coffin is that of a woman, and that the fingers are hers. She is clutching the edge of the cloth-lined coffin as a support enabling her to move within breathing space of the sleeping personage... if only he still breathed. Maybe she might kiss his dead lips. Maybe she won't. We do not need to know. The virtual embrace is already there, fixed by the form of their pose, forever present.

During my youthful years in Sydney — from my contact with university in 1957, then with computing at IBM, up until my departure for Europe at the end of 1961 — I often attended symphonic concerts at the town hall. In 1960, when he was not yet an international celebrity, Mstislav Rostropovich performed in Australia under the direction of the Ukrainian composer and conductor Igor Markevitch. One morning, when I happened to be strolling idly through the sunny streets of the city, I wandered into the town hall to buy a ticket for the cellist's forthcoming concert. Hearing music, and seeing that all the doors were wide open, I ventured into the almost empty concert hall. Rostropovich was alone on the stage, crouched over his frail instrument in a pose like a gawky peasant milking a goat. The solemn sounds filling the town hall were not however those of a beast, but of a divine creature: the cello of Mstislav Rostropovich. I was transfixed in awe, since I had not imagined for an instant that I might come upon the great artist in these almost private circumstances. I remember feeling vaguely that my presence there was slightly improper, as if I had stepped by chance into the backstage room of a lovely actress when she was changing costumes. I had the terrible apprehension that the cellist might suddenly halt in the middle of a bar, to admonish me: "Young man, what are you doing here? Can't you see that your presence is preventing me from concentrating on my practice? Please leave immediately!" Rostropovich never pronounced any such words, but I nevertheless left the concert hall rather rapidly, because I had the distinct feeling that my presence there was incorrect. It was strange, indeed troubling, to hear this great musician "making mistakes" (in his judgment, not mine), and then repeating a few bars several times over, to get them right. That sunny Sydney morning, I was in the presence of rare ethereal sounds, which I have never forgotten.

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