Maestro performs to thank college for degree

In most cases, an eminent personage receiving an honorary degree is expected to say a few inspirational words to the students and guests gathered for the occasion.

At Bates College on Monday, famed cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich let his instrument do the talking.

Instead of addressing the audience of about 1,000, Rostropovich, the retired music director of the National Symphony in Washington, performed the Sarabande in C Major from Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello after accepting an honorary doctor of humane letters degree during Bates’ annual Founders Day Convocation. His listeners responded with a standing ovation.

“I have been very touched and excited by my reception here,” Rostropovich said before sitting down to play. “My English is not enough; I’ll use my cello now.”

Rostropovich came to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1977. He had been ostracized in his native country because of his support for such dissidents as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but he has visited Russia several times in recent years to raise funds for earthquake relief, war orphans and historic landmarks.

He was music director of the National Symphony from 1977 to 1994.

Bates President Donald W. Harward cited Rostropovich for “giving voice to dissent” and for his music’s “majesty and evoking what is noble in us all.”

The convocation marked the 141st anniversary of Bates’ founding in April 1855.