There are so many reasons that I’m excited to play Slava! First, the title actually contains that exclamation point. Second, it’s by Bernstein, a true American character, and he wrote it about Rostropovich, another great character of the 20th century. Third, it allows me to put on this blog the most jaw-dropping musical performance I’ve ever seen. (More on that later). Finally, it’s just so much fun to play! So, about this piece…
Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an erudite, passionate musician whose exceptional talents and expressive gifts earned him a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers. His rose to instant national fame in 1943, at age 25, when he filled in for the suddenly ill Bruno Walter as conductor of a nationally televised New York Philharmonic performance. He went on to become the Philharmonic’s music director until 1969, and remained a frequent guest conductor there until his death. With the Philharmonic, he presented a series of 53 educational Young People’s Concerts which were broadcast on CBS, making him a familiar face around the nation. He also composed music, crossing from academic classical music into Broadway musicals, including West Side Story, On the Town, and Candide.
Bernstein wrote Slava! in 1977 on a commission from its namesake, the legendary Soviet-born cellist and conductor, Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich. Rostropovich at that point had just assumed the post of music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. He asked Bernstein to help him present a concert of the composer’s own work early in his first season. He got three new pieces out of that request: Three Meditations from “Mass”, Songfest, and an untitled “political overture” that was only barely finished in time for the concert. The latter work turned out to be Slava!, a fun and irreverent tribute and welcome for Rostropovich, who conducted the premiere performance on October 11 of that year. “Slava” is a common nickname for Russian men whose names contain “-slav”, and Mstislav Rostropovich was known as “Slava” to his closest friends. “Slava” also means “glory” in Russian. The program notes at the Kennedy Center, home of the National Symphony, delve deeper and are worth a read.
There is much material about Bernstein on the web. The survey below only scratches the surface.
Leonardbernstein.com – a true treasure trove of everything Bernstein, including many personal reflections by friends, relatives, and colleagues.
Leonard Bernstein on Wikipedia.
The Leonard Bernstein Collection at the US Library of Congress.
A lengthy and heartfelt essay on Bernstein and his influence at classicalnotes.net.
You’ve been waiting all this time for that jaw-dropping video. I found this by searching for “best Japanese elementary school band”. To really make your jaw drop, look what they’ve done with their music stands. To make it drop even further, listen until the end of Slava! for the famous chant. Now, without further ado:
Now here’s a look at Slava himself doing what he did best, which was making beautiful music with his cello: