Inside the NSO’s grand return to Russia

The “Washington National Symphony Orchestra,” as it was billed on tickets and programs, played its first two concerts in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, where the portraits of composers that line the walls were offset by a huge photo of Rostropovich hanging over the stage. It was a lot for the cello soloist, Alisa Weilerstein, to live up to; Rostropovich gave the world premiere of Shostakovich’s first cello concerto, which she and the NSO were performing, in this hall in 1959. “Aren’t you afraid to play this concerto for the Russians?” a Russian journalist asked her. Weilerstein, in fact, played the concerto for Rostropovich himself as a student; when she was done, he asked whether her family was happy, because she seemed to suffer so much (Weilerstein is still known for her emotive, hyperexpressive delivery). “If I could play a Shostakovich piece written for Rostropovich with Rostropovich in my face,” Weilerstein said to me, “I think I can play it for a Russian audience.”