by Robert Battey
Janos Starker's all-embracing legacy is unique. No one has impacted so many different facets of the art, craft, and literature of the cello, and no one has given so freely of himself to advance the cause of music at all levels.
As a solo artist, he is simply nonpareil. The only string player to whom he could be compared as to quality and consistency is Jascha Heifetz. He has traveled the globe scores of times, appearing in the world's great concert halls, and with the most prestigious orchestras. His recording career spans nearly half a century, and covers an astounding range of repertoire -- from multiple versions of the Bach Suites, to severe, late 20th century works of Bernard Heiden and Robert Starer, to probing, provocative interpretations of all the central masterpieces of the cello literature, to the jazz works of David Baker.
Whether on stage or through recordings, the technical and musical standards he has upheld have never once wavered or compromised. And those standards are higher than anyone else's. From his world premiere recording of the Kodaly Solo Sonata at age 24 (which won the French Grand Prix du Disque) to his muscular, virtuoso renditions of the Hindemith and Schumann Cello Concertos at 70, each and every Starker recording is an object lesson in great string playing. He shows us how to sculpt the sound, how to control tension and release, when to speak and when to sing. The tone is clean and focused, the interpretations commanding and inevitable, and the technique untouchable.
Above all, he teaches about artistic integrity. For Starker, the performer's duty and privilege is to make the composer's vision clear, comprehensible, and alive for the listener. Ego, showmanship, apparent struggle, and maudlin emotion are anathema to him. Some have mistaken his patrician stage presence for aloofness, as though the absence of distorted facial expressions or gasping betokens an absence of musical feeling. When the most harrowing cellistic problems are dispatched as though they did not exist, people who "listen with their eyes" have come away disappointed.
But Starker's total concentration yields rich rewards for most listeners. The music is presented with a purity and honesty that fixes the piece permanently in our minds. The respect and fastidious care he accords the composer's work brings it to its highest state of communication, as all extraneous messages are cleaned away.
The words of Felix Weingartner, writing about conductors, seem also to sum up Starker's credo as a soloist: "It is impossible for a conductor to improve the value of a work; he can only from time to time lower it.... If the performer's work is congenial to the composition he has fulfilled his task to the highest possible extent." At 76, critics and audiences agree, Starker is still fulfilling his task "to the highest possible extent."
One factor that may account for the breadth of Starker's musicianship is the breadth of his professional experience. He has done far more than simply play solo cello literature all his life. Like his colleagues Gregor Piatigorsky and Leonard Rose, Starker spent important formative years as an orchestra player, distinguishing himself as principal cellist of the Budapest Opera, Dallas Symphony, Metropolitan Opera, and Chicago Symphony orchestras. He has played Broadway shows, jingles, and pops concerts. He recorded the complete Brahms and Mozart piano trios and many of the Mozart string quartets. Recently he has particularly enjoyed playing the Schubert Cello Quintet with a number of different groups. This catholic outlook on his craft has kept him connected with all types of literature and music-making, further enriching his performances and teaching. During his 76th year he toured Asia and Europe, and performed a staggering amount of music, including the Elgar, Vivaldi, Brahms, Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Haydn, and Boccherini concertos, the Dohnanyi Konzertstück, and several recital programs. Last year he learned and premiered a new concerto by Alan Hovhaness.
Still, Starker has often said that teaching is his most important work. Unlike most other high-demand soloists, he always dedicated a substantial portion of his time, even during his peak performing years, to teaching. His teaching career began at age 8, and he never tires of boasting that that first student, Eva Janzer, bested him when they went head-to-head years later at the Geneva Competition.
When it came time to establish a home teaching base, he declined to join one of the established powerhouses on the east coast. Instead he came to Indiana University - Bloomington in 1958, and helped build it into one of the greatest musical training institutions in the world. His presence gave the music department a cachet that quickly attracted other top-tier artists, and the school's name spread with their travels, as well as with the many successful graduates fanning out across the country.
He is, of course, proud of the world-class careers that Gary Hoffman, Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, and Maria Kliegel have built, but he is equally proud that so many others grace top orchestras and universities around the world. His musical and cellistic principles have so permeated the profession by now that they are often no longer identified as his.
And Starker has taken great care that his principles can be understood and adopted by all. In masterclasses, he willingly describes and demonstrates everything he does. He is alone among the top virtuosi in that he has carefully set out and notated the keys to his left-hand wizardry in the "Organized Method," a compendium of practice patterns that build intonation and dexterity. He also shares his performing insights through numerous published editions of such works as the Bach Suites and the Dvorak Concerto. He has exposed his playing to the most merciless scrutiny by recording the brutal etudes of Popper, Grützmacher, and Piatti in the "Road to Cello Playing." The recording was made to show students what the etudes should sound like if a high level of musicianship and technique were applied, thus encouraging them to aim higher. In the "unintended consequences" category, however, many timid students have considered quitting upon hearing it.
Starker knows that his musical gift carries responsibilities, and even during his busiest years he accepted a few engagements each season with community orchestras, both to bring world-class playing to communities that would otherwise not hear it, and to support and inspire the musicians in those groups. He hosted one of the American Cello Congresses in Bloomington and recently served as Honorary President of the World Cello Congress in Baltimore.
He has further left his mark on music through the many excellent additions to the repertoire that has been brought forth on his behalf; major pieces by Martinon, Starer, Baker, Barati, Heiden, and others are being taken up by other cellists, enriching both them and their audiences. He has also championed neglected works, such as the sonatas of Hindemith, Casella, and Dohnanyi, and the Hovhaness, Bartok, and Janson concertos. And who even attempted the Kodaly Solo Sonata until Starker showed us how it could be done?
Starker has written numerous articles for a variety of music and non-music magazines, and has developed a radical new cello bridge (indicated by the "S" design in its cut-out, rather than the traditional heart shape) which challenges traditional acoustical assumptions.
In short, Janos Starker's presence has had a major impact on everyone who plays or loves the cello. The standards of execution he has set, like Feuermann before him, have quite simply changed the way we listen to the cello now, and what "virtuoso" playing means. His teaching generations of cellists will ensure that the principles and standards will be carried forward. His many ancillary activities have enriched and enlivened the musical life, in so many spheres, and will continue to do so long after he leaves us.
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