The little French town of Evian, known to many for its bottled water, is also home to a music festival aimed at discovering new, young talent. Established in 1976, the Festival de Musique, later named Recontres Musicales d’Evian, takes place in the serene landscape nestled between the French Alps and Lake Geneva.
The Curtis Institute began a partnership with the Evian festival in 1983 when the orchestra began its residency under the direction of Robert Fitzpatrick.
This would be the Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s first European tour. There, Curtis musicians worked with many fine composers, conductors, and soloists, including Witold Lutoslawski, Mstislav Rostropovich, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Jaime Laredo, Itzhak Perlman, and Isaac Stern.
The orchestra would return to the festival 4 more times: in 1984, 1989, 1990, and 1994.
The tour was enjoyed by all. Festival audiences and music critics commented on the orchestra’s enthusiasm, maturity, and technique. A few French journalists remarked that they were impressed by the orchestra’s diversity, both in gender and nationality.
In 1985, Mstislav Rostropovich assumed the artistic direction of the festival. Already actively involved with Curtis, “Slava” (as Rostropovich liked to be called) led the orchestra in its 1989 return trip, performing Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, and Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony.
Curtis students were both entertained and inspired by Slava’s teaching style. Students were fortunate in that, in Rostropovich, they were not just learning from a world famous musician, but also a humanitarian, activist, and, well…a bit of a rebel. One of the world’s great cellists, he befriended many of the 20th century’s most important composers and writers. Some of these artists were political dissidents whom he defended even though it would eventually cost him his Russian citizenship.
Awarded over 30 honorary degrees, Slava won both the Stalin Prize and the Lenin Prize, and was made a People’s Artist. The French Nation made him commander of the Legion d’honneur, and the British Monarchy conferred upon him an honorary KBE.
Ten other countries have awarded him medals of freedom. It seemed Slava could be found wherever the world needed a “push” in the right direction. When the Berlin wall came down, he even showed up unexpectedly to perform in celebration.
In 1999, Rostropovich received the Curtis Award (the first to do so) recognizing his outstanding musical and humanitarian accomplishments. Perhaps, it is most impressive that he was able to use music to fight for human rights.
International Herald Tribune writer William Pfaff eloquently captured Slava’s ability to combat oppression with music:
“Music has always presented a different problem to authoritarian regimes. It provides another and more subtle articulation of truth than the writer does, becoming political mainly when it is confronted with totalitarian demands for conformity and ideological correctness-which is to say, when authority demands spiritual submission. Rostropovich’s art is more profound…because it has no conscious political mission” (Pfaff, 1994).
Former orchestra librarian Edwin E. Heilakka (1919-2005) compiled scrapbooks of the Evian tours which are located in the Curtis Archives.
Pfaff, William. “The Russians’ Subversion And Why It Still Disturbs.” International Herald Tribune 27 May 1994: Print.