by Tim Finholt
Seattle was treated to a performance of the Dvorak Concerto by Janos Starker and the University of Washington Symphony, with Peter Eros conducting, on December 7, 1999. The eager crowd waited politely for the fine performances of Liadov's Enchanted Lake and Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet Suite to end so that they could listen to one of the greatest cellists of the century perform one of their most beloved works. There was an incredible sense of relief when he finally walked out on stage after the intermission; the Dvorak · at last! (I must confess that even the opening tutti seemed endless this time. What is a soloist supposed to do during this unusually long intro?).
I almost skipped this concert since I had heard Starker play the Dvorak a few years ago with the Seattle Symphony, and I expected that he would deliver yet another performance in which he kept himself out of the spotlight, letting the music speak for itself. Yes, he was more demonstrative in the Brahms Double at his 75th Birthday celebration, but I figured that may have been a result of the celebratory energy that enveloped him. After all, this is the guy who had told me, "One can put on a show any time. I played in the Metropolitan Opera for a long time, so I know all the tricks. I know how to make the audience cheer and yell and do all kinds of things. But I don't do it because I don't think that it's my job.... I'm not an actor. I am a musician and I am more interested in the art of music making. I allow the piece and the composer to set the emotional tone of the experience, whether it's Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky."
I decided to go at the last minute, since it would be a perfect way to cap off a great week of Starker master classes at the University of Washington. I resolved that I would focus my energy upon listening to what he was doing musically, and ignore what I was seeing or not seeing. This was a great opportunity to listen to Starker with fresh ears.
Thank God I decided to go! I saw a side of Janos Starker that I haven't seen before, and I have seen him perform many, many times. He shook his jowls with intensity, closed his eyes in deep concentration, visibly demonstrated total emotional involvement in the piece, and played with an incredible attention to detail. This was the antithesis of "cold" playing, a term that cruelly (and unfairly) shadows him.
He did miss some notes, not that it mattered in the grand scheme of things, but it was striking to see this paragon of precision flub a thing or two. Though these could have been the result of his being 75 years old, my hope is that they occurred because he allowed himself to get excited, apparently one of his great fears ("If you get excited, you lose control."). A little less control served him well.
I found his interpretative ideas to be fascinating. He has played this piece for over 60 years, so I looked forward to hearing what 60 years of study sounded like. He seemed to be trying to emphasize the folk origins of the various themes in the Dvorak, perhaps drawing upon his own Hungarian roots for inspiration. There was a rustic quality to his performance that I haven't heard from other cellists. He also seemed to be speaking with his cello, while others usually try to sing, at least in this piece. I felt like I was being told a story by an agitated grandfather.
One interesting thing he does, from a practical standpoint, is to alter the notes and the rhythm of the ascending chromatic octaves in the first movement (E up to high B). He gives the end of this passage a discernable upbeat in order to help the orchestra determine when to come in. Otherwise, they struggle trying to figure out which of those many chromatics is the final B. This is an interesting idea, but I think I may prefer Dvorak's version.
I often felt that, though very passionate, the delivery of the music wasn't as organic as it could have been. He emphasized certain notes within each phrase in a manner that felt like, "This note is important, so I'm going to accentuate it." Instead of feeling like gentle nudges, they felt like shoves.
His delivery of the final two solo notes of the third movement, the F# and B, typifies this somewhat intellectual approach. Instead of doing a natural, perhaps defiant, portamento to the B, Starker did what he calls a "delayed shift," where one starts the shift after the bow change and then slides up to the B, thus producing an audible glide. And that's exactly what it sounded like, "Now I'm going to do a delayed shift up to the B," instead of sounding like it emerged from the depths of his soul. Perhaps I'm just spoiled by the Yo-Yo's of the world.
Is this a new Janos Starker? Has he been visited by the ghosts of cellists past, present, and future? Or have I just caught him when he's feeling particularly energetic? I've seen two performances in a row in which he lets the audience see him, so I'm starting to wonder what's going on. I like to think that seeing him perform in this manner actually enhanced my experience of the music instead of detracting from it. If he continues to play like this, I won't even think of skipping his next Seattle concert.
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