Maxim Shostakovich Champions His Famous Father's Music in the U.S.

UPDATED 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/16/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

'I was specially blessed to have this kind of father'

Seven months ago conductor Maxim Shostakovich was the director of the U.S.S.R.'s Radio and Television Symphony Orchestra and a bright star in Soviet Russia's artistic firmament. The son of Dmitri Shostakovich, the revered composer who died in 1975, Maxim was unchallenged as the premier interpreter of his father's work. He had undertaken a government-sanctioned tour when, last April, at a postconcert party in West Germany, Maxim and his pianist son, Dmitri, slipped past their Soviet guards and walked to asylum in the West.

Today they live in a Manhattan high-rise opposite Lincoln Center. Maxim, 43, smartly dressed in a turtleneck and calling his agent about an appearance with the Denver Symphony this month, looks every inch the all-American artist, and Dmitri, 20, is a member of what's called "the Russian Gang" studying at the Juilliard School. Every facet of their lives has changed but one: Maxim is still championing his father's music. "This," he says with feeling, "is the purpose of my life."

Ironically, Maxim is getting some unwanted help. Testimony, an as-told-to book purporting to be his father's "memoirs," portrays the composer as a persecuted, bitter man full of rage against such contemporaries as Prokofiev ("the soul of a goose"). Maxim charges that the book, edited by Soviet musicologist Solomon Volkov, is suspect: "I just know it is not what my father would have written."

The late, great Soviet composer clearly had his political ups and downs. "There were hard moments when Shostakovich was attacked especially viciously," Maxim says. Under Stalin he was denounced for "bourgeois decadence" and leading a "cult of atonality, dissonance and discord." But he incorporated his harshness into traditional forms and, in the post-Stalin thaw, emerged finally as a cultural hero. But until now Shostakovich has lacked an indisputable champion in the U.S. As a maestro, Maxim is still largely unknown—he has conducted only half a dozen U.S. concerts since his defection—but his expertise is unchallenged. "When it comes to his father's music," says Lynne Levine, a violist with Washington's National Symphony, "you can't argue with him."

Maxim was spurred into action after a harpist in his charge defected and Maxim realized he would be held responsible. "The KGB people said, 'You won't be going anywhere for a long time after this,' " he recalls. "I had thought of defecting before, so it was now or never. Still, it took a lot of courage actually to cross over the line." As it turned out, he has found the transition surprisingly easy. "I traveled a lot in my time," he says. "I have not experienced much of a culture shock. I was always attracted by the very lively cultural life here and the huge number of first-rate symphony orchestras. And plenty of friends of mine have found their way to the U.S." Conductor Mstislav Rostropovich in particular has functioned as a guardian angel. (The only immediate family the two left behind were Maxim's sister, a physicist, and Dmitri's mother, whom Maxim divorced some years ago.)

In Russia, Maxim lived in the fashionable suburb of Zhukovka, outside Moscow. Now he and Dmitri share a two-room apartment whose only wall decorations are a New York City subway map and a poster of Rostropovich. A table is piled with packets of catsup. Maxim's mattress and box spring sit on the floor, and Dmitri sleeps on a sofa bed. But there are a Yamaha baby grand and a stereo. "This is just a temporary shelter," Maxim explains. "I want to live in the country. I love the country, the out-of-doors."

Despite his father's troubles, Maxim says his childhood was "warm and traditional—we were a very close family." He and his son remain similarly close. "Dmitri is a very subtle boy, very sophisticated," he says. "I hope he won't lose whatever Russian values and traditions he has now. But he will enrich himself with the American life-style." Asked his views of American women, Maxim smiles and says, "I am not well versed in the subject yet. It's too early in the game." He has been eagerly devouring books by Solzhenitsyn and Maximov ("I can see immediately why they were banned"), and he has albums of Dave Brubeck, Scott Joplin and Sinatra, but he is cool to pop music. "I used to like jazz, but most pop is akin to accompaniment," he says. "You wait for the real music to begin, but it never does."

One often-criticized song clearly pleases Maxim: As he led the National Symphony before 75,000 people in May, his eyes lit up with triumph at the first notes of The Star-Spangled Banner. In fact, he has only one real concern about his new home. "I left primarily for human rights considerations, but I think Americans are too trusting," he says. "You don't have enough awareness of how dangerous totalitarian regimes are, of what it means to lose your freedom."

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