Every now and then, I’ll interview a musician, and I’ll often ask, “Who are the living composers you admire or respect? Is there anyone worth listening to today?” Usually, the musician will smile at the cheeky way the question is phrased. Almost never will he protest, “What do you mean? There are many, many fine composers among us.” Chances are, he’ll say, “Well . . .” — then give me two or three names. One of those names is likely to be that of a Russian composer, Rodion Shchedrin.
In the last 15 years, he has grown ever more popular, championed by some of our best musicians. These include three major conductors: Valery Gergiev, Lorin Maazel, and Mariss Jansons. One of his biggest boosters was Mstislav Rostropovich, the great cellist and conductor who died in 2007. When you had “Slava” in your corner, you were the beneficiary of an almost superhuman force.
The Lincoln Center Festival, here in New York, will feature Shchedrin this month, when the Mariinsky Ballet, from St. Petersburg, comes to town. Gergiev will conduct, and such luminaries as Diana Vishneva will dance. Two of Shchedrin’s ballets will be performed: The Little Humpbacked Horse (1955–56), based on the fairytale poem by Yershov, and Anna Karenina (1971), based on you-know-what. The Mariinsky will also perform Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite — i.e., his arrangement of Bizet’s score. Maya Plisetskaya, one of the greatest dancers of all time, premiered this ballet with the Bolshoi in 1967.
Shchedrin has a great affinity for ballet in general, and for Plisetskaya in particular: They were married in 1958. They are still an attractive, even a glamorous couple, she in her mid-eighties, he in his late seventies. Also, you could argue that they are the most talented couple in the world. Seriously. Of course, you might put in a bid for Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, too.
Rodion Shchedrin was born on Dec. 16, 1932. (There was another composer born on December 16: Beethoven.) His father was a composer and music teacher. Many, many composers have been sons of composers, or of professional musicians: Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, to begin with. Shchedrin’s first name is an old-fashioned Russian one, shared by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The last name looks fearsome in its spelling, but is easy to pronounce, or approximate: Shed-REEN.
He studied with two top musicians at the Moscow Conservatory: Yuri Shaporin and Yakov Flier. The former was his composition teacher, the latter his piano teacher. Flier was little-known in the West, unlike some other pianists from the Soviet Union. But he was magnificent. Shchedrin has said he was the best he ever heard, after Vladimir Horowitz. That’s a powerful statement, even allowing for a student’s natural loyalty.
With respect to composition, Shchedrin came of age in “a rather lean time,” as he put it in an interview earlier this year. Even the Impressionists — Debussy, Ravel — were scorned as tune-happy squares. Abstraction and devotion to method were the rule of the day. “For 35 years, there was a dictatorship of the avant-garde,” Shchedrin said in another interview, “and I was never a part of it.” He lays great stress on what he calls “intuition.” Especially in earlier years, he wrote his share of abstract, or semi-abstract, music. But he insists that “music should touch the heart and soul.” And he has referred to himself as “a post-avant-garde composer.”