The Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky has died at the age of 87. A conductor of diverse tastes, he recorded close to 800 works over his long career, and was a particular champion of the composers Alfred Schnittke and Sofia Gubaidulina. He is also widely credited for reviving Shostakovich’s first opera The Nose during his time as Music Director of the Moscow Chamber Music Theatre.
Known as something of a maverick, his podium style was individualistic – Rozhdestvensky often favoured exaggerated facial expressions over the baton or hand gesture. Though largely considered an affable man by orchestra and audience members, he could be spiky – the conductor once withdrew from a series of concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra after realising that promotional posters had his name in smaller type than the soloist, cellist Lynn Harrell. “I feel not only slighted, but I suffered what is called in Russian a moral insult,” he said.
Born in Moscow on May 4, 1931, his father, Nikolai Anosov, was a prominent conductor, while his mother Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya was a singer. He adopted his mother’s maiden name in the masculine form at the outset of his career, wanting to avoid charges of nepotism.
After graduating from the Central Music School at the Moscow Conservatory where he studied the piano under Lev Oborin, Rozhdestvensky began studying conducting with his father in earnest. He trained at the Bolshoi Theatre in 1951, where he made his conducting debut in Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. He became the Bolshoi’s principal conductor from 1964 to 1970, then its General Artistic Director in 2000. He gave the world premiere of Prokofiev’s The Gambler at the Bolshoi the following year, but resigned shortly after citing unfair treatment by Moscow journalists among other reasons.
By the mid-70s, Rozhdestvensky was widely regarded as one of Europe’s best conductors. He was Chief Conductor of many ensembles, including the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1978 – 1981), the Stockholm Philharmonic (1974 – 1977 and 1992 – 1995), and the Vienna Symphony (1980 – 1982).
His greatest passion seemed to be music of the twentieth century, with Schnittke and Shostakovich (who he encountered as a student) the composers most important to him. He gave the world premieres of many composers, including Shchedrin, Slonimsky, Eshpai, Tischenko, Kancheli, Gubaidulina, and Denisov.
Rozhdestvensky is survived by his pianist wife Viktoria Postnikova, their son, and three grandchildren.