Remembering Janos Starker: July 5, 1924 – April 28, 2013


“What is the role of music in society?… Music is one of the essentials in human existence, almost identical with eating, sleeping, making love, the basic functions that keep a human being alive. Music simply, is one of the blessings and joys of civilized human existence.”   – Janos Starker

View Janos Starker performances and interviews at http://cellobello.com/legacy/starker-the-teacher

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Janos Starker Tributes

From Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi:

The passing of my dear mentor and inspiration, Janos Starker,  is indeed profoundly sad news, even though we have been expecting this at any moment. It is a great honour for me to write about him, and it causes so many wonderful memories to flood my mind.  The only thing I can say at this moment is that he was not only a truly incredible cellist, musician, artist, pedagogue, but more than that, he was a genuinely great person who influenced and encouraged so many people in the best possible way. The amazing results of his teaching can be heard everywhere and beautify the entire world.

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From Maria Kliegel:

A moment of tense, expectant silence – to me it seemed to be an eternity. A couple of silent smoky clouds floating in the teaching room.  Janos Starker looked at me in his typical manner, a gaze so full of intensity that I could feel it under my skin, followed by a shattering comment, uttered with a cool slowness and a stony, unchangeable look on his face:  “if you ever play as inaccurately as you just did, I will deny ever having been your teacher.“ And again, an eternal moment of silence, this time I sat horrified in my chair, not being able to breathe or move. Silent smoky clouds.

One of my lessons in Bloomington ended this way – the Haydn D major concerto.

I was 19 and more than eager to learn from Janos Starker, whom I adored and respected endlessly, and of course I was full of pride and happiness to be part of a group of chosen students. It is easy to imagine with how much force his words struck me.

Of course he knew that and used his brilliant pedagogical skills in order to safely put me on the road, not to hurt me or cut me down.

Janos Starker was an extremely intelligent teacher who not only passed on excellent cello technique, but also had an extraordinarily caring way of guiding young people, including all psychological means and tricks. His aims were extremely high and almost impossible to reach. There always was struggle, but at the same time satisfaction as well from trying to reach the top and please the master. He set me on fire, burning with inspiration to reach his goals, to fulfill his demands.

This came to be one of my golden rules of life: “ If you want to become a musician who is characterized by individuality and true expressiveness, you have to train yourself, your muscles, your brain, your imagination, your ears, your taste on the highest level and in all dimensions of self-criticism and experience, so to eventually let your soul shine through. Music exists to touch and deeply move, not simply to show off or try to be everybody’s darling. Don’t get lost in being an actor on stage, showing how exciting and fantastic you are; create excitement for the audience but stay behind modestly with a cool and controlled mind.“

Janos Starker was an elegant human being and musician, full of honesty, dignity, responsibility, famous for his unforgettably subtle humor, loving, caring, guiding, demanding. His purity of tone and phrasing overwhelmed. He taught me love and respect for mankind and music. He woke up my senses, planted seeds for my entire life. He helped me organize and discipline myself, taught me to analyze and enjoy, to find my own frame looking for solutions and making decisions.

 I feel endlessly privileged to have received the most precious of gifts – to know him, to have crossed his path, learned from him. Logically, it is now my turn and responsibility to carry his unique heritage to the next generation.

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From Paul Katz, CelloBello Founder, Cleveland Quartet, New England Conservatory

The cello world lost one its true titans today with the passing of Janos Starker. Under hospice care since April 9, he was just two months short of his 89th birthday. Known to the concert-going public as one of our true superstar performers, he was equally revered by generations of grateful students as a superstar teacher. I was privileged to be one of those lucky enough to study with “the cello doctor that will fix whatever ails you”!

Those of us who knew him well, understood that the iconic, impassive face masked a human being of warmth, humor, and yes, vulnerability. In our 45 years of friendship we shared some intimate conversation, but never once did he speak a word to me of his childhood, World War II or his time in a Nazi detention camp. Rightly or wrongly, I interpreted this as his coping, and loved and admired him for it. I believe at least partial catharsis was achieved in his auto-biography, “The World of Music According to Starker”, in which he tells the world of his early years and gives us a moving and insightful glimpse into his humanity.

What a miracle of strength, perseverance and will his life was – his genius and caring touched and helped many thousands of cellists the world over – we all mourn this loss, and our admiration, gratitude, and love for Janos Starker will forever endure.

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From Emilio W. Colón,
Associate Professor of Cello
Indiana University Jacobs School of Music

Dear friends and colleagues,

Today around 5AM, my mentor and friend of 27 years, Janos Starker has arrived at the pearly gates to tell St. Peter that he has come to rest in peace. The great man, artist, and teacher, will now be playing his first concerto with the orchestra of the heavens.

Mr. Starker, your teachings, principles, and fatherly love shall always remain in my heart. RIP.

With all my love,

Emilio

QUE EN PAZ DESCANSE

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From Brant Taylor, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

The music world feels a deep loss today with the news of Mr. Starker’s passing in Bloomington.  For those of us who knew the heavy, metal door with the small, opaque glass window at Indiana University, the loss is personal.  Mr. Starker viewed his students as a large family: “Papa” leaves behind hundreds of relatives who play and teach in every corner of the world.  His legacy is his message, his principles, his ideals, and his influence.

It’s hard to think of an artist who fused the roles of performer and teacher more successfully than János Starker.  Studying with him meant learning to interpret the slight raise of one eyebrow, the smallest curl of one side of his mouth or the number of seconds between a puff on a lit cigarette and the moment he would begin to speak.  Former students treasured making return pilgrimages to Bloomington to observe lessons and renew the sense of purpose he inspired.  Put simply, he changed my life, as he did with many others.  And, from the twinkle in his eye, I knew he relished passing on that inspiration to new generations of cellists, as when I took some of my own class of students from DePaul University to his studio to watch the master working.

I write these short words from Miami, where I spent the past week coaching the wonderful young cellists at the New World Symphony.  Mr. Starker’s passing underscores my generation’s responsibility to link the legends who came before us with the young artists who will carry their legacy forward in the future.  While we’re saddened by the news, there is now more reason than ever to advance the art that he gave his entire life to studying and sharing.

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From Aron Zelkowicz, cellist and Director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Music Festival

Although today is a sad one for those of us who were lucky enough to know and study with Mr. Starker, it should also be a moment to celebrate one of those rare lives for which the term “legacy” was created.

Many words will be paid tribute to his legacy as a cellist.  His recordings are a gift to future generations, each performance a master class in the values he espoused: purity and professionalism over what he called “entertainment”.  Recordings do not do justice, however, to the phenomenon of witnessing Mr. Starker perform at the same level within arm’s reach from his swivel chair, day in and day out. 

Nor will recordings do justice to Mr. Starker’s integrity as a teacher and as a leader.  Together with the four other cello teachers at Indiana University in the late nineties, Starker built a cello family whose first loyalties were to the IU School of Music and the art of cello playing.

 Cellists (and pianists, violinists, and saxophonists) would crowd into his tiny smoke-filled studio and observe him work with whoever happened to be in the ‘hot seat’ that hour.  This revolving door policy was designed, he joked, to remove liability in case witnesses were needed to defend him against allegations of physical or mental abuse. 

But the true philosophy behind such an approach was transparency.  Knowledge was something to be shared generously.  And although each of us had our own needs, the transformation of each ‘private’ lesson into a mini-master class helped maximize its impact on multiple sets of ears and fingers.  Only in such an environment could a community of young, impressionable students trust that their mentor had their best interests at heart.  This was the sort of environment, as I hear tell from my parents, that his late, beloved colleague Josef Gingold created among violinists.

About practicing, Mr. Starker always encouraged “experimentation”.  See what happens if you move your arm a little higher here, or an inch further out, or if you raise your thumb here as opposed to there….  Experimentation was the way out of the plateau, the rut in which we can find ourselves stuck.

However, when it came to his teaching, Mr. Starker never experimented.  A student was never used as a prop or used to make a point. It didn’t matter if it was an aspiring prodigy playing for him for the first time, eager parent in tow – or an advanced former student coming back for some more familiar advice.  Even as he instructed us to “an-ti-ci-pate”, each word was carefully chosen, yet timed with perfect fluency to the moment.  Perhaps an unfortunate soul was about to be sternly lectured on the virtues of discipline.  Or perhaps one of my undergraduate non-majors would play an easy piece like Breval’s C Major sonata for the required Music Education jury, quaking in his boots, whereupon Mr. Starker would offer terse yet gentle words of encouragement.  As I’m sure has been noted often before, he had the rarest gift of assessing the needs of each situation and immediately providing the most effective words.

Although these intangible gifts may not be as easily transmitted or appreciated by those that didn’t directly know him, I know that the values he instilled in so many of his students will be passed on as his former students follow his model of generosity, leadership, and wisdom.

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From Jeffrey Zeigler:

Janos Starker was more than one of the greatest cellists who ever lived. He was extremely generous with his gifts and shared his knowledge with thousands of musicians across several generations.

And with each of his students, he held us all to the highest of standards. He forced all of us to work harder than we knew how, and in the process encouraged us to look within ourselves. He was the absolute master at assessing what each cellist needed in order to fulfill his or her own potential.

Mr. Starker’s clever wit was unmatchable. Once over Spring Break, I accidentally sprained my right thumb playing basketball with my friends. When school started up again I immediately went to him concerned that he would be upset that I hadn’t practiced. Instead he said, “Good. Then you won’t tense up your thumb anymore.”

Mr. Starker has influenced the lives of several generations of cellists. I am tremendously humbled to be a part of this family. I will miss him dearly, but I think of him every time I pick up my cello. His extraordinary legacy lives on in all of us.

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The following is Reprinted from IndianaPublicMedia.org

Cellist Janos Starker, a renowned concert soloist and a Grammy Award-winning recording artist, died Sunday morning at age 88.

Starker was a child prodigy. He began playing the cello in the early 1930s in Hungary at age six, and by the time he was 8 years old he had his first student.

“I played in public at 11, 12, 13, 14, and 14 was the big, dramatic break-through for me because a colleague of mine was supposed to play with a student orchestra, Dvorak Concerto,” Starker remembered. “I, as a student, was in the orchestra, as a cellist. At noon the phone rang in our apartment and my teacher called and said, ‘Would you like to play Dvorak Concerto?’ I said ‘When?’ ‘This afternoon.’ And I said, “May I use the music?” They said, “Sure.” And I played and that was supposedly one of the big dramatic successes of childhood prodigies,” he says.

At age 14, Starker’s teachers encouraged him to quit school so he would have more time to practice. A year later his teacher retired so Starker took over and began teaching a number of the students.

Starker says his big break came in 1939, when he performed the Zoltan Kodaly Sonata for Solo Cello – a piece known for being unplayable.

The Road From Performance To Teaching

Starker was held in a Nazi war camp during World War II.

In 1948 he was able to emigrate to the U.S. thanks to a plan engineered by then Indiana University president Herman B Wells and music school dean Wilfred Bain.

The Dallas Symphony was recruiting Starker, but they were not sure they would be able to hire him because he was not a member of the orchestra’s union. Bain wrote a letter of intent saying IU would be interested in hiring Starker.

The letter found the approval of immigration officials and Starker got into the country but not to work at IU.

Instead, he joined the Dallas Symphony, then the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and finally the Chicago Symphony. Not until 10 years after entering the country did he officially join the IU School of Music faculty.

“This came as a perfect solution to me because the fact was that the understanding has been that I would concertize whoever and as long as I take care of my class nobody will find out how many days I’m here,” Starker recalled in a 2011 interview with Herald Times columnist Peter Jacobi.

In the same interview Starker claimed that he pursued his true professional love not on the road, but in Bloomington.

“I’ve been caught confessing that basically I was born to be a teacher,” he said. “People question of course the validity of it because I played all those 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 concerts in my life, but the fact is, I think I was put on earth basically to be a teacher.”

Starker was famous for what he called “An Organized Method of String Playing.” Every aspect of string playing, he said, can be put into groups – playing preparation, right and left arm placement, responses to the demands of specific pieces – an overall examination of one’s technique.

“Anticipation in music making is the most important element. Have you realized what happens if someone doesn’t anticipate why speaking… this – is –what-happens. “There is no fluency, no continuity,” Starker says in a stop and start fashion to a class at IU in order to demonstrate his lesson.

A Tough But Dedicated Teacher

“We often come up with a problem that the students come and they play Beethoven sonatas, Schumann concertos and this and that they play very well, musical this and that but something lacks,” he says. “And what’s lacking is partly because of the timing. They are too young yet. They have no real understanding of the composer’s language.”

Starker was known for being tough on his students. Former IU basketball coach Bobby Knight, himself known for the demands he placed on his players, asked Starker to come speak to his team.

Afterward one of the players came up to Starker and asked if he could tell Starker a joke.

“Mr Starker there was a car accident and three cellists died and they all tried to get to Heaven,” the student said. He then goes on to explain the joke. St. Peter asks the first two with whom they studied. They answer they studied with Mstislav Rostropovich and Leonard Rosen. St. Peter tells both of them they have to go to Hell.

The third one tells St. Peter he studied with Starker. Then comes the punch line.

“St. Peter says ‘You may come in. You already went through Hell.’”

Starker trained some of the most accomplished cellists. Among them is Emilio Colon, David Effron and Maria Kliegel. At Starker’s 75th birthday celebration in 1999 many of them performed.

Starker believed music was the highest form of expression and as a musician it was something he said he could not live without.

“It is part of our lives in a way that we cannot wake up in the morning and go through life without music and without having this essential aspect of it, that music means just as much as eating and drinking or living then that person should not be involved in music,” he says.

Indiana University Mourns Loss of Music Great

Many in the IU community expressed their sadness Sunday after receiving news of Starker’s death.

IU President Michael McRobbie called Starker “one of the greatest cellists to have ever lived” and “one of the university’s true artistic giants.”

“Few performers achieve the kind of technical mastery, innovation and scintillating stage presence that defined Professor Starker, who will always be loved and admired for his willingness to share his tremendous talent and remarkable personal story with generations of aspiring musicians who received their musical training with him at IU’s internationally renowned Jacobs School of Music,” McRobbie said in a press release.

Starker is survived by his wife Rae, daughters Gwen Starker Preucil, Gabriella Starker-Saxe, and grandchildren Alexandra Preucil, Nicole Preucil and J. P. Saxe.

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‘He Ignited a Lifelong Spark’:
A Pupil’s Tribute to the Greatest of CelloTeachers

From Janet Horvath, Associate Principal, Minnesota Orchestra 1980-2012
reprinted from the Slipped Disc blog

On Teaching:

“After the standing ovation, eventually people sit down. But teaching moves through generations. If you believe in the principles that represent the truth in the masterpieces, then you try to preserve those principals. They can be preserved only through teaching.

Teaching forces me to know the answer to ‘why’. Don’t ever stop asking “why.” 
-Janos Starker

Generations of cellists mourn the passing of Janos Starker. We are bereft. Janos Starker was my mentor, inspiration, second father and friend. Mr. Starker changed my life and made me who I am today. Many years after studying with him I can still hear his articulate words resound in my head and heart, and I hear myself repeating them to my students. He gave me a lifetime of information, which continues to unfold and helps me grow as an artist and as a human being. Starker was unfailingly attentive and gratified whenever I achieved a new step in my career, always ready to continue to mentor us.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I was accepted to his class although I must admit I was terrified. I knew how exacting his standards were. Starker was born in Budapest, Hungary, as my cellist father had been, which certainly contributed to my father’s keen interest in my studying with him. Starker had the crème de la crème of students to pick from. How did he choose? His first criterion for selecting a student was that he or she would need to be able to assimilate a great deal of information in a compressed amount of time. Second, he selected students geographically. My class consisted of a motley crew of cellists from diverse backgrounds and countries far afield: Germany, Japan, Israel, the U.S. and Canada (me) and that continued. I think there isn’t a place on the globe that his influence wasn’t felt.

As a teacher Starker could be critical, demanding, sarcastic and intimidating but if you worked hard (and we did) he was inspiring. He was determined to give us the tools to be consummate craftsmen on the cello as a means to the end: to be slavishly dedicated to the musical intentions of the composer. His inviolable rule: work to the best of your ability.

One of the attributes I admire most now, is that Starker discouraged ego. There was never an inkling of favoritism (although he definitely had a soft spot for all of us.) Camaraderie was cultivated between the demigod and the underlings.

In his heyday, when I was his student, he would teach intensively for several weeks and then poof! He would be off on a three-month concert tour. During the time he was in town at Indiana University, we had three lessons a week and each lesson had to be different repertoire. The pressure was tremendous. We would cower outside his massive metal studio door, taking deep breaths to calm our nerves before entering the sanctum. I remember that after each lesson, as soon as the studio door closed behind me, I would plop myself down on the floor in the hallway, right by his door, and furiously take notes so as not to forget one gem, knowledge which I would need weeks (or years) to assimilate.

Starker had many attributes but the three that most impressed us were evident during the three-hour Saturday master classes. He could play anyone’s cello and sound perfect, whether it was a poor quality instrument or a cello that was seriously out of adjustment. He could play any and every cello work flawlessly and from memory, picking up the piece midstream. Most astonishing for us, was that Starker always had a cigarette burning. He’d hold it between the fingers of his right hand (his bowing hand.) His arm moved swiftly back and forth as he demonstrated. The cigarette butt would burn. The ash would grow, expanding precariously but somehow suspended. We watched in horror, our eyes following the bow back and forth like watching a tennis ball lob back and forth over the net, anticipating that the hot ash would fall on his Strad. Unfailingly, at just the right moment when the ash was impossibly long, he’d flick the butt into the ashtray. None of us dared react.

“You play on a very high level” was the most superlative praise from Starker during lessons. But he believed in us–that we could always achieve greater heights, and we did.

My last visit with him he cupped my face with his hands and said, “I am proud of you.” I welled up. This was high praise indeed coming from someone whose compliments were rare.

Starker had the uncanny ability to communicate his principles in exactly the way the student needed to hear it. I remember a master class during which Starker tried to convey a technique over a dozen times using different metaphors, until the light -bulb went on for the student.

Hearing Starker’s transcendent playing of Zoltán Kodály’s Solo Cello Sonata, his signature piece was incomparable. He tossed off  the flashy double note trills and hair-raising passagework with ease.

Starker was compelling, and provocative as a teacher. He ignited a lifelong spark within us to excel as cellists and musical ambassadors. “Spreading the word” was his fondest wish. Starker hoped that by choosing students from all parts of the globe, cello playing and teaching would improve exponentially as would appreciation of music. He believed in the power of music to achieve universal peace.

Virtuoso cellist, master pedagogue, articulate advocate and visionary with an unspoken depth, Starker has had an extraordinary impact on cello playing and music making. I will forever be intensely grateful for everything he gave to me and I cannot even begin to say how sorely I will miss him.

Starker Departs by Janet Horvath
Dedicated to Janos Starker – my teacher, mentor and inspiration.

Profound luminous
sounds emanate
from his cello
my mentor Starker
in tune with the stars
and the Universe
conversing with the Beyond.
Wise distinguished soul
ascends in the mist
evanescent.
He made me who I
became; his students
and his colleagues mourning,
inconsolable.
The cello prophet’s
sonorous bass and
incandescent
coloratura,
resounds— Music’s Muse,
evermore.

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