[Due to the fact that in early February my blog went on the blink for the very first time since its birth two years ago, the online team that hosts it eventually worked things out and I am now happily back to posting, although a music topic dear to me missed its anniversary – the death on February 7, 1994 of the famous Polish composer, Witold Lutoslawski.
What follows is a purely personal account of my being hosted by Witold in Warsaw , as well as being introduced by him to his cellist friend, the great Russian cellist, Mstislav Rostropovich (known universally as Slava) whilst they were in the ‘throes’ of putting the final touches to the Pole’s Cello Concerto.]
The Cello Concerto was commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society with support from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It received its world premiere at London’s Royal Festival Hall on October 14, 1970 by Rostropovich (to whom the piece is dedicated) and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Edward Downes.
To back track to the late 1960’s, I was pursuing a mercantile career in my country of birth, India, as a ‘box-wallah’ – a derogatory term for any employee of a commercial firm (usually British) in Calcutta. I still maintained my pianistic credentials in the small, but vibrant, Western Music segment of cultural life in that teeming city on the Hooghly River – both by way of regular All-India Radio broadcast recitals as well as concerts with the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. In 1969 I heard from New Delhi, the capital, that the Government of India would like me to represent it at the Warsaw Festival of Contemporary Music. “Warsaw Autumn” – as it was dubbed – was created in 1956, during the thaw that followed years of Stalinist dictatorship.
I accepted with alacrity, as it gave me the opportunity of catching up with the latest in modern Western Music. From the very moment that I arrived in the Polish capital, I immersed myself in the series of mind-boggling concerts devoted to avant-garde music , some of which I’d never heard before, but also to what I call modern classical music, into which category Lutoslawski’s genre of composition fell.
It was at a post-concert reception half way through the festival that I was introduced to the composer, who graciously invited me to visit him at his home before I returned to India. I was excited to learn that he’d just completed a concerto that his dedicatee, Rostropovich, was programmed to premiere in England.
Then, out of the blue, my host suggested that we visit the Warsaw Ghetto, portions of which had survived the brutal bombing of the capital during World War II. It was a solemn moment for me as we trod parts of what remained of a once thriving Jewish quarter of Warsaw in the 1940’s. I found out for myself that to this day it is one of the most haunting and historically poignant places to visit in all of Poland, and for good reason.
Before World War II, there were over 400,000 Jews living in Warsaw, and by 1942, all members of the Jewish community were forced into the German-constructed ghetto, demarcated by a 10-foot-high (3-meter high) wall circling around a specified sector of the Jewish district.
Before I left Poland, I was delighted to meet Rostrapovich, who was in town to help put the finishing touches to the work that would once again thrust Lutoslawski to the forefront of European orchestral compositions in the modern era when Slava performed it for the first time in London in the autumn of 1970. Here is the last 2-minute segment of the Cello Concerto’s Finale on YouTube with Yo-Yo Ma.
Some five years after the events described above, I had moved to the United States and after a three-years in the administration of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, New York, I became the General Manager of the Florida Philharmonic in Miami.
In that capacity I had the opportunity of booking Rostropovich as the soloist in Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, but in an interregnum between conductors the only one available as a guest was Mehli Mehta, the father of Zubin Mehta. Before striding onto the concert stage, Slava turns to Mehli and says forcefully, “Watch me throughout, understand!”
After the concert. we repaired with some honored guests to a swanky local hotel, which I’d alerted earlier. We were a round dozen seated around a large circular table and the mood was joyous as the concert performance had turned out, despite earlier misgivings, to be a success. Then, in the midst of much bonhomie and banter, Slava literally hoisted himself unaided onto the tabletop with a glassful of wine in hand and, with a twinkle in his eye, began belting out a rustic Russian folk song with scores of other diners at surrounding tables looking on in wondrous amazement. After all those years, that scene remains embedded in my memory.
Reference: Wikipedia, My Diary.
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