SEPTEMBER 12-14, 1999
by Tim Janof
I only got off the plane in Seattle an hour ago and I miss the intensity and excitement of the last few days already. There's nothing like being in an environment where all share a deep love of music and the cello, and where striving for musical excellence is an assumed top priority. The fellowship of those who have music in their hearts is incredibly addictive, so it will take awhile before my head comes out of the clouds.
The first day consisted of two master classes, one with Maria Kliegel and the other with Gary Hoffman, both former students of Janos Starker (see the Master Class Reports). Maria Kliegel's master class was peppered with ironies. Particularly eyebrow-raising was her use of the words "pressure" and "squeeze" in Starker Land; I'm sure there was a slight increase in blood pressure of some in the audience whenever the "p" and "s" words were mentioned. Also entertaining was her telling a cellist with the physique of a professional football player that he needs to work on power in the Prokofiev Sinfonia Concertante. I found her use of the contrasting concepts of masculine and feminine to be particularly insightful with a female cellist whose Haydn was wonderfully delicate and sensitive, though it lacked a certain contrast.
Gary Hoffman's master class was excellent. He brought a perfect balance of humor and willingness to work to the class, as well as a nice balance between technical and musical discussions. I was struck by his frank and understandable admission that Bach is scary to play, even for a musician of his caliber. "The worst thing in Bach is to be afraid of it." He is a wonderfully balanced musician and teacher, having the ability to delve into technical and musical issues in a highly analytical way, as well as in a more spontaneous and creative manner.
The next day started with an enjoyable exhibition of photographs of Starker from various stages in his life. There is a picture of him from fifth grade in which he has a charming bob haircut, and one of him as a dashing 18-year-old. There's one of him taken about twenty years ago in which he has a mustache and is wearing a Greek fisherman's hat, and another of him sitting in the sun with Pierre Fournier, both shirtless. It was nice to see this relaxed and approachable side of Starker.
I attended the orchestra rehearsal that afternoon and must confess that I was on the edge of my seat while waiting for Rostropovich to come out. When he finally walked out on stage, I found myself reflecting in a fast blur about the many accomplishments of this historic figure -- the huge number of compositions that have been written for him, his relationships with Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Britten, his sticking up for Solzhenitsyn, and on and on. I felt like I was travelling on a fast roller coaster, reviewing his life in a series of quickly passing images.
On many people's mind, of course, was "What is Slava doing here?" Rostropovich and Starker could not be more different in their approaches to music, and their public artistic disagreements are legendary. Have they really kissed and made up? There didn't seem to be any tension between them, though Slava didn't stay for the speeches during the Gala Concert and he wasn't at the celebratory dinner afterwards, for which there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation, like he was tired. Starker has denied any rivalry between them, saying that they "only coincided in history," a wonderfully Starker-like thing to say.
That same evening Rostropovich gave a master class. It didn't start on a good note, however. He noticed the video camera placed by the school as he walked on stage, and refused to start the class until it was taken out of the hall. We must have sat for fifteen minutes before he finally went back and carried it out himself. The reasons he cited were that his English wasn't adequate, and he didn't want his spontaneous utterings to be shown to his colleagues. He seems to be very careful about what gets into the public domain, perhaps preferring that a more carefully thought-out and well-produced video be made for public "consumption" instead. Whatever his reasons, he lost popularity points with some of the audience members.
Once the master class got going, we were in for a real show. There were two pianos on stage, one for the pianist, and one for himself. He taught from the piano for the most part, not the cello, since he claims that he doesn't want students to imitate him, a rather extreme approach in my view. He primarily discussed musical ideas, not technique, in this class (see the Master Class reports). He has produced some wonderful cellists, like Natalia Gutman, so I'm sure he can discuss cello technique when he wants to.
Each piece was discussed as a collage of images, though not necessarily as a continuous story. This wasn't exactly conducive to note taking, since general principles were rarely discussed. His process of coming up with imagery to help "interpret" a piece was very instructive, however. I particularly enjoyed his demonstration of a sense of repose while gently playing a pedaled and arpeggiated C major chord, which was done to help set the mood in the opening of the Beethoven C Major Sonata. I was told later that his imagery changes each time he teaches a particular work, so one might benefit more from mimicking his creative process, instead of trying to memorize the whimsical imagery he cooks up on the spot.
I was impressed with his knowledge of the score. He could play the scores from memory and could discuss chordal progressions freely. This made me question the criticism I hear from his musical detractors. If he knows the score intimately, and he uses all his creative resources to determine what the piece is "saying," what the colors are that he wants to achieve, and the story he wants to tell, I'd say he's on the right track.
Rostropovich finally took the cello near the end of the class. The student was having trouble with the fast spiccato bowings in the last variation of the Rococo Variations, so Rostropovich sat down with the student's cello and showed him how to do it more effectively, with a more circular motion of the frog, not just back and forth. The class ended with a wonderful quote from Shostakovich, something to the effect that we musicians must become "soldiers for beauty." I hope we all take this charge to heart.
The next day there was a panel discussion with several of Starker's past students and colleagues, including David Baker, composer; Robert Dodson, cellist and Dean of Oberlin College Conservatory of Music; Paul Katz, formerly of the Cleveland Quartet and now professor at Rice University; Shigeo Neriki, pianist; and Paul Jacobi, a local music critic. The bulk of the discussion revolved around Starker's deep impact on each individual, not only professionally, but also personally. Needless to say, Starker comes off as a remarkable human being, both warm and demanding.
David Baker described his collaboration process with Janos Starker. Starker, as one might expect, has always been perfectly blunt in his feedback - "This will work ... this won't work." Once, when Starker objected to the length of the orchestral introduction to a cello concerto he had written, Baker cited the Dvorak Concerto as an example of long introductions, to which Starker replied, "You ain't Dvorak." Starker also came up with many ideas for David Baker, like a piece for cello and percussion, and a cello concerto for chamber orchestra without a cello section. He even composed a theme or two. Starker encouraged Baker to draw from the music of his own cultural background, like gospel, spirituals, and blues, just as Bartok did with Hungarian folk music. Starker's influence on David Baker is "continuing and pervasive."
Robert Dodson, of Oberlin, has been saving up his public praise of Janos Starker for many years, and was gratified to finally have an opportunity to speak his piece. He spoke of the profound influence of Starker's early recordings, which many assumed were electronically altered at the time (they weren't), since they were so technically perfect. He also enthused about Starker's generosity of spirit, "passionate mind," and "feeling intellect."
Paul Katz, former cellist of the Cleveland Quartet, described Starker's profound technical influence on him. He called Starker "a doctor of the cello" and praised his sense of integrity and inquiring mind. Katz's approach to the left hand, with the transfer of weight and shift preparation, comes from Starker. His preoccupation with preventing physical tension is due to Starker's influence as well.
Shigeo Neriki, Starker's long time recital partner, shared many humorous and touching stories. He remembers first auditioning at the University of Indiana as a student and being warned by the pianist who preceded him, "Whatever you do, don't look into Starker's eyes" -- sound advice for anybody wanting to maintain one's composure in Starker's presence. When Starker first approached Neriki with the idea of playing with him on tour, Starker kindly warned him that he runs the risk of being known as "Starker's accompanist" for the rest of his life, instead of as an artist in his own right.
Neriki told a story about when he and Starker were on tour and Neriki was ill. They arrived at the hotel and Starker told him to go to his room immediately and get some rest while he checked them both in. Neriki gratefully went to his room. Several minutes later, there was a knock on his door and he finds Starker at his door with a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. Starker said, "Drink this and go to bed." As Neriki took the glass, he noticed that Starker had his luggage with him and was still wearing his hat and coat. Neriki realized that Starker must have gone to the hotel kitchen immediately, without getting himself settled first. At that point, he realized that their relationship was much more than a professional one.
Peter Jacobi, the local music critic, described his role in the music community. Not being a musician, he sees himself more as the spokesman for the average concertgoer. He cited several goals that the average audience member has when they attend a concert: to gain an understanding of the music, to enjoy themselves, to be transported, to be able to indulge in the experience, to see things anew, to dwell in the world between waking and sleep, to have questions answered, to remember one's hopes and dreams, to trust that the performance is honest and true, to be receptive like a child, and to confirm their beliefs and sense of faith. He also described himself more as a reviewer, not a critic, since he is not a musician, and can't perform a technical analysis of performances.
I had interesting conversations with some of the other spectators at this event. One person expressed disappointment that Yo-Yo Ma and many other soloists of today do not teach, thus breaking the long tradition that has been established by the older or past generations of touring soloists; Rostropovich, Starker, Casals, Feuermann, and Rose all have or had students to which they passed on their ideas. An entire generation of cellists will be lost because of this break in tradition.
Another shared his experiences with the Feldenkrais Method, which greatly heightens one's body awareness. The more aware we are of our body mechanics and motions, the wider our tonal palette becomes. "What kind of sound can I produce if I move my left foot while playing," for example.
A former Starker student reminisced about the time he performed a Popper Duet with Starker. He remembers going into the first rehearsal sheepishly, head down, shoulders collapsed, feeling like he was a young student again. Starker quickly reminded him that they weren't going to have a cello lesson; they were colleagues rehearsing. After the performance, Starker hugged him on stage, saying, "I hope you are very proud."
During the orchestra rehearsal, Jeffrey Solow encouraged me to try to describe the different cellists' tones in terms of colors, i.e. deep dark brown, etc. Being an extremely non-visual thinker, I found this to be quite a challenge. After fighting internally the notion of assigning visual attributes to aural sensations, I realized that this may be a valuable exercise, and it may make me a more discerning listener. You might try it yourself.
The Gala Concert the next evening was the climactic event of the celebration. It was simulcast on the Internet, so I hope you all had a chance to see or at least hear it. Streaming technology is still a work in progress, so I'm sure some of you had difficulty in getting a clear or continuous picture of the events.
The concert opened with the Brahms Double, played by William Preucil, Starker's son-in-law, and Janos Starker, with Rostropovich conducting. Starker actually played with visible emotion! He chose to not hide behind the piece, which was surprising but wonderful! Someone later told me that Starker may have a special love for this piece, which I can understand; that second theme in the first movement is gorgeous!
Other works in the concert were the Largo from Bach's D minor Double Violin Concerto, performed by Starker's daughter Gwen and granddaughter Alexandra, Kol Nidrei, performed by Gary Hoffman (with a little too warbly and continuous vibrato for my taste), Popper's Hungarian Rhapsody, performed by Maria Kleigel, and Dvorak's Silent Woods and Rondo, performed by Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi. The concert ended with a cello ensemble of 150 cellists, conducted by Emilio Colón.
Tsutsumi was full of facial expressions as he played, which was very distracting. Fortunately, he was doing things musically that coincided with each smile or look of surprise. I was told later that he came to Indiana University many years ago as an extremely shy and withdrawn student. He has certainly opened up! Incidently, there was a student in the Hoffman master class who also smiled it up as he played; I wonder who he studies with.
There were many speeches at this event. One notable speech was given by Starker's daughter, Gabriella, in which she described a father who demanded the utmost precision and clarity in her words when speaking with him. The best speech was given at the Gala Dinner afterwards by Starker's long time friend and colleague, Gyorgy Sebok. Sebok said that he often looked at his friend with the proud eyes of a parent. He also revealed that Starker likes to play pool (pocket billiards), ping pong, and chess!
I kept waiting for some welling-up moments but they never really came. I half-expected (hoped?) to see Starker overcome with emotion as he reflected on his life in a room full of generations of his past and present students, but he wasn't about to do that. I guess I should have known better. In one of his speeches, he said, "People keep asking me how I feel. I don't know right now. Ask me tomorrow!"
This event greatly enriched my understanding of Janos Starker in a way that one can't achieve just by listening to his many recordings or by watching him on stage. Not only did I get to see him in more candid moments, but I got to enjoy many stories about him, talk to his former students, and listen and watch him play in a manner that was truly heart-warming and inspiring. I cannot adequately express my deep gratitude to him for what he has done to champion the cello and classical music. Needless to say, he deserves nothing but praise for his lifetime of service to music. He is truly a "soldier for beauty."
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