Cellist  János  Starker

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



starker



There is something very special about the cello and a few of its practitioners have become legendary.  These days, Yo-Yo Ma seems to be everywhere advocating many kinds of music.  In previous generations, several names can be cited
— though I will forgo the opportunity to insert my own preferences and allow each reader to make his or her own list.  A couple cellists became conductors of huge repute, and there I will list Arturo Toscanini and Mstislav Rostropovich.  Many have become teachers, and for this category I will put forward that the most noteworthy is János Starker.

A premier solo performer, he put aside that part of his career to be part of orchestral life for several years before returning to the limelight in 1958.  That year, he also embarked on his teaching at Indiana University, which helped that school become
— as they proudly state in the biography which is reproduced at the end of this webpage — a mecca for the study of the cello.  This way, his ideas and philosophy will live on and be further passed along for generations to come.

We can be grateful for his mind and for his creative abilities.  His performing career gave many audiences around the world uplifting evenings; his numerous recordings have enhanced the audio world; and his willingness to share so much with so many makes this man rise to the very top of the heap.  

He was back in Chicago in 1987 for concerts with the orchestra, and I arranged to meet him after a master-class with young string players.  Because of his very busy schedule, we only had a few minutes to talk, so we got right to the heart of the matter . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    Where is music going today?

J
ános Starker:    To glories, further glories.  Of course, when anybody asks me this question, there are always two ways I answer it.  One of my writings deals with the fact that in the twenty-first century, music may be outlawed because it’s getting so loud that it may cause ear cancer.  But that’s in my pessimistic moments, when I feel that.  Otherwise, the standards have risen immensely!  Regarding instrumental playing, which is what I was just speaking about in the class, most of today’s youngsters are far better equipped than the exceptional ones in the past.  And the orchestras, in spite of the economic problems, are still producing music on the highest level and increasingly higher level.  And there are increasing numbers of people listening to music, so therefore I’m as cheerful about the times when I won’t be around as I can be, for the sake of my children.

BD:    So you are optimistic about the whole future of music?

JS:    Since I live in the present, and in the present what I see indicates this previously mentioned rising standard, I’m optimistic that it will continue.

BD:    The rising standards you’re talking about — are these technical abilities, or are these musical intuitions?

JS:    It’s the most frequent question, but you’re not supposed to separate the two.  The technical efficiency is motivated by musical and artistic goals.  The problem is, I frequently say, that Mr. Rubenstein made the statement, “What happened to yesteryear’s greats?”  Today everybody plays fast and furious
and accuratebut there is no greatness attached to them.  It’s a misconstrued thing because the great ones are still here.  We still have those pianists of today — the Richters and Michelangelis and the ItaliansI don’t want to leave out names and I don’t want to add names — who are just as great as all the great pianists of yesteryears were.  On the other hand, there are thousands and thousands of pianists and violinists and cellists who play on an extremely high level, therefore the public or the viewer is inclined to ask, “How come they are not as great as the great ones, as musicians?”  The same number of great ones are still there as ever before, but the next level is so much higher!  This is what provides that the overall musical standards are far superior to anything in the past.

BD:    Are the great ones, then, on a higher level than the great ones of the past?

JS:    No, the great ones are just as great as the ones before.

BD:    Is there a certain finite level of greatness?

JS:    In some sense yes, because you cannot play better piano than it’s been already played; you cannot play violin better than it’s been already played by Heifetz and Paganini, probably.  But there are areas of music where the standards are still rising.  For instance, the orchestra playing standards are rising because the next level of players are so far superior in their mechanical abilities and training, and their musical training.  My own instrument, the cello, has not reached yet its maximum potential.  That’s still in a developing stage, and those instruments that are coming to the fore now
the flute and the viola, for examplethere are still possibilities of increasing all the levels.  So there are areas where the artistic standards are still rising.

BD:    Are things getting too jammed up at the high end?

JS:    Yes, that’s what the problem of the young musician is.  If they are so close to the top, they are all straining for career recognition instead of realizing that career doesn’t necessary mean that you are performing with all the major orchestras, or as a soloist, or you are the toast of the town.  Career means to contribute maximally to musical life, and to contribute whether you are a Chicago Symphony member or a Kalamazoo Orchestra member, or the teacher at a college or the member of a string quartet or a chamber orchestra.  Contribution is the clue to the things.  Career means have you contributed to the cause or not?  If you did, you made a career.  Whether you are known by the taxi drivers on the streets or by the janitor is not the measure of contribution.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk a little bit about the music itself.  What do you look for to find greatness in music?

JS:    The way I construe the message of a composer has been brought to fore; whether it is the music of a great composer or a masterpiece, this message
— and what that individual added to itremains the priority.  But first and foremost is the observation of the musical laws and regulations, with the language of the master, to maximally exploit the content of the masterpiece with the special taste of an individual.

starkerBD:    Do these musical laws and regulations change as time goes on?

JS:    The laws and regulations don’t change, they are just applied differently to different composers.

BD:    Is this the genius of one composer over another, to apply it differently, or in a better way?

JS:    The difference between Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Dvořák, Kodály, Bartók, Stravisnky, Prokofiev and all the others is that they used musical language differently.

BD:    You’ve established a musical line.  Is that line continuing?

JS:    If you ask my views about the creative part of music in the late twentieth century, I have felt on occasion that there is somebody coming along who has a new language use, which means somebody who has written something which makes me think that it’s his language.  The unfortunate thing is that because of the strive toward originality and being different from everybody else, too often lets me think that a person has ideas, but the idea is not powerful enough to carry it for a half an hour; so I enjoy it for five minutes or six minutes, but after a while it starts boring me.  There are signs now that there are people coming who are giving signals that they have a language of their own.  Don’t ask me to name them because there has nobody been yet known to me who will develop into the kind of creative person, or whose output will be so consistent that one can compare him or her with those that we consider already great.

BD:    We always play masterpieces in the concert hall.  Should we play the lesser works, the works from the second and third strata also?

JS:    I think that this is one of the most delightful aspects of the musician’s life, that when you are faced with a lesser masterpiece, to make it seem that it’s a masterpiece.  And when you ask what do I consider a masterpiece, that has been defined by me long, long ago
a masterpiece is the one that cannot be destroyed.  Even if it’s played badly, it’s still a masterpiece.  The problem is that the lesser works become often boring and often less than satisfying.  But the dominant musicians’ job should be that when they are faced with a lesser masterpiece, to try to make it seem like a masterpiece.

BD:    You’re always giving advice to young cellists.  What advice do you have for young composers?

JS:    The same, to learn the profession, learn the trade, be able to write anything any time for any combination, so as to become a professional writer.  Then make sure that if you have an idea, do it with the professionalism that you obtained prior to it.  Most of the time, of course, my advice to composers is limited to the questions that should be watched for when they write a cello concerto.  I said, “Write music; don’t write cello concertos.”  Most of the true composers of the past wrote basically symphonies; they are not concertos.  The Mozart and the Haydn are concertos with orchestra accompaniment, but most of the other composers have written symphonies with a principal protagonist which is the cello.  My greatest problem with listening to many of the performances is that it’s being played as a display piece only for the solo instrument, and the orchestra is relegated to a secondary position, although the composer had written, basically, a symphonic work.

BD:    So you’re more of an obligato than a concerted instrument?

JS:    I consider myself, like in the Strauss Don Quixote, the protagonist.  I am Don Quixote; I represent him, but the orchestra piece itself is the work, not me alone.  These days I’m using music all the time to make sure that I’m not just sitting out there playing my part, shining and ignoring because I’m the highest paid performer at that particular moment.  I am a musician who performs a concerto with orchestra, or an orchestra with the cello solo, so the totality of the work should be coming across to the audience.  It’s one of the extended problems that everybody who comes backstage after — not everybody, but a great many people — say that the orchestra was too loud and they couldn’t hear me all the time!  That infuriates me, in some sense, but I’m too old to get infuriated any more.  The fact is that the piece is the importance, the composition is the importance, not how much they’ve heard of the cello.  Many times the composers write, and the cello is a textural part.  The cello plays, and it’s not important to hear every single note; it’s the texture.  It’s important for me to play all the notes, because if I play the wrong notes, you hear it.  If I play the right notes, you’re less inclined to hear it.  But the important thing is the totality of the work.

BD:    Then what advice do you have for the audiences that come to hear you play?

JS:    Not withstanding the fact that live performances take into consideration the performer
because otherwise they could just listen to recordingsit’s important to be part of the total musical experience; but a musical experience is not a theatrical experience.  So while seeing me play and seeing the orchestra play, try to let the sounds come to you and the sounds affect you emotionally — either joyously or in tear-provoking waysBut still, the music should do that and not the visual aspect.

BD:    But something like Don Quixote — is that not a theatrical experience?

JS:    The sound’s supposed to reflect it.  The fact is if I act like Don Quixote, it may enhance the theatrical aspect of the thing, but the priority should still remain the music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

JS:    Totally different!  Totally different.  Many, many years ago, I elaborated on this issue in an article called, “Take One and Take Nine.” 
Take nine was the recording because the recording is supposed to be almost like a test on an artist’s part of what he truly thinks and can do with a given piece at a given time of his life under perfect circumstances.  In the studio, if you don’t like it you can play it again; the concert is take one, which is what you can do in a concert hall on a given night under less than adequate circumstances.

BD:    Is one better than the other, or are they just different?

JS:    Of course they are different because conditions change.  When there’s more humidity in the air, the instrument responds differently.  If the orchestra is in a bad mood, or if the orchestra is not necessarily on the highest level in the world, it changes your concept of the work and what you can do with it under those circumstances.  If the conductor is not someone as great as Mr. Leinsdorf, then you may have to put up with playing slower or faster and change your concept as the proceeding goes along.  [See my Interviews with Erich Leinsdorf.]  You cannot sit on stage and try to show your displeasure by indicating that the others are not as good as I am!  Therefore the work is at hand, plus the fact
and here comes the contradiction to what I’m usually stating, that only the music matters — since the audience paid you the courtesy of buying a ticket and came to hear you, if you cannot get your message through with your purely artistic, musical means, then you’re darn sure that you have to do something so the audience still gets an evening worth of entertainment.  Then you start making gestures and so on, so as to make sure they don’t leave empty-handed, so to speak.

BD:    Empty-handed, or empty-headed?

JS:    Both can be assumed.

BD:    [Laughs] This brings up one of my favorite questions.  In music, especially the literature that you play, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

JS:    It’s just a matter of priorities.  It’s the artist who chooses the priority, and if he’s successful he will be received either for one or the other, or both.

BD:    You don’t strive only for one, or only for the other?

starker LPJS:    For many, many years in my life, all I was interested in was to try to produce the highest under any circumstances, and I even stated at one time that the audience is merely listening in.  Eventually, as I grew older, I found some fault with that, but it was based on the art for art’s sake concept, which is still in me, somewhere.  But the older I get, the more and more I realize that I cannot expect the audience to look for the same aspect of a musical composition.  I spend a lifetime learning it and condensing it and changing it and the whole evolutionary process.  The audience, especially with works that are not their daily diet, I have to be careful to make sure that I present it in a way that it can be appreciated even by those who have not heard the work before.  It’s basically small modifications, not a great deal of letting off of my artistic principles.

BD:    So you’re constantly refining everything you do?

JS:    Music making is an evolutionary process, and I hope that I don’t reach the point, while still performing, that I stop developing.

BD:    As an example, records you made fifteen, twenty, thirty years ago are still out there and still being played and enjoyed.  Do you not want to disown them because you can do so much better today?

JS:   
Better is a questionable thing.  I’ve recorded the Bach Suites four times.  I’m not sure that the fourth one is better; it’s different, it’s more mature in some sense.  There are other concerns that were dominating at the time I made the first one, the second one, the third one or the fourth one.  At a young age, when you are playing something in the early stages of your life, you are striving to be up toward the unattainable perfection, mainly based on the musical laws and regulations.  Later on, you start being interested much more in construction or structure.  Then you are more interested in emotional aspects of the music, and eventually colors dominate your thinking and sounds.  So it depends which one appeals to you, as a listener.  To me, I don’t think that one is better than the other.  In the mean time, of course, sound recording techniques have improved, so a lot of things entered the picture which made it possible for us to do something which, in some sense, can be considered maybe better.  I don’t think it is that much noticeably better, except the CD sound production is better than the mono sound production was forty years ago when I made the first one.  The artistic consideration is to discover more and more in the treasure hunt.  I think it was most beautifully stated by Fritz Reiner.  One time, after a concert, when I asked him why he used the music for the Eroica Symphony, he said, “When I’m looking at the music I get new ideas.”  That’s one of the many, many things I’m thankful for that I learned from him.  All the works that I used to play without music, now I put out the music; and in the middle of the performance while I’m looking at it, I say, “Why not do it this way?  How come it did not occur to me?”  

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re selecting repertoire, there’s a certain number of great cello works that you are obligated to perform every year, or over several years.  How do you decide which ones you will play this season, and which one you will play this night?

JS:    Most of the time I don’t choose the concertos.  There’s a list, something like forty-five different orchestral works from which the conductor is supposed to choose according to his basic program plan for that evening.  Then we go back and forth.  Here in Chicago I was originally supposed to play, I think, the Saint-Saens Concerto because it’s a French program.  Since it’s too short, I proposed the Milhaud Concerto with it.  Mr. Leinsdorf said, “I’m not sure that I like that one, so how about something else?”  So then we considered a French baroque concerto, which was not enough interest for the orchestra.  So I said, “Why don’t we do the Bartók Concerto or the Hindemith Concerto?” and Leinsdorf replied, “Let’s do Hindemith.  It hasn’t been done and it’s such a marvelous piece!”  I consider it probably the best written and constructed cello concerto of the twentieth century.

BD:    So to a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter to you what is selected?  You will come and from this repertoire you will just simply play your best on what is selected for you?

JS:    That’s basically what a professional is supposed to do.  The old-fashioned concert artist usually traveled for one season with two concertos and two recital programs, and that’s what he played.  I never believed in it, so practically every season I’ve done twenty different orchestra works and about six different recitals programs.  That keeps me alive much more than the repeating the same things over and over.  I said many years ago that I refuse to make a living playing the Dvořák Concerto every night!


BD:    When you get into rehearsals and performances, how much of the work is collaborative between you and the conductor and the orchestra, and how much is just waiting for the conductor or the soloist to interpret?

JS:    If one is faced with a conductor who has not done the work, or who is not, let’s say, on the same experience level as you are, then it’s the soloist’s job to enlighten the conductor as to what should be done with the piece.  If you are faced with a great musician like Mr. Leinsdorf, then it becomes a cooperative effort.  He says, “Don’t you think if it was a little bit slower, it would be better?”  And either I agree, or I don’t.  Most of the time in this collaboration, it’s a joyous agreement all over the place and we’re both having a marvelous time.  He made some small changes and I made some small changes, and it works.  It’s absolutely delightful collaboration!

BD:    When you find a conductor with whom you don’t agree, who wins?

JS:    Supposedly I win, unless the conductor is so bad that you give up
— which happens on rare occasions.  But then it provides us with very good after dinner stories.

BD:    Are you still looking for new concerti to learn?

JS:    In May I am doing a world premiere of a concerto written by almost my namesake, Robert Starer.  [See my Interview with Robert Starer.]  It’ll be premiered in New York with the New York Chamber Orchestra with Gerald Schwartz.  And I just agreed now to make a recording of a piece that I had in my library but never looked at before, the Villa-Lobos Fantasia.  All the time composers are sending their works, but if I don’t play them then some of my students might, if I like the piece.

BD:    This comes back now to my question
how do you decide which ones you will play?  What do you look for in a piece that says I must play this, or I cannot play that?

JS:    It used to be a very simple decision, that if I see a piece of music that I feel that I cannot do anything more with, or anything different with it, than anybody else can, then I usually am less interested.  There are certain works which are coming to one’s attention that practically anybody can make an acceptable presentation.  Until I find that there is something else that I want to do with it, I don’t play it.   The new works these days that one plays is usually written for you, so you are in the creative process and working the piece with the composer.  By the time the composition is finished, it’s sort of yours, so therefore it’s not as much of a problem to learn it.  But when people keep sending music that has been already performed and printed, then the choice is whether I can do something, where it speaks to me and therefore I can speak through it and give some kind of an expected musical message.

BD:    For pieces written with you in mind or in collaboration with you, they become your pieces.  Does that preclude them from being played by anyone else?

JS:    No, no, no, no.  If I like a piece, I want everybody else to play it.  I don’t believe in the exclusivity of a work for five years.  I think it’s ridiculous.  It used to be simply business, an economic proposition, that if a soloist didn’t have enough chance to be invited to play with certain orchestras, then by virtue of a new piece being performed
— first performance in Europe or in Germany or in Francetherefore you got a number of engagements.  I never believed in that because I think it’s childish.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to broach the subject of old instruments and new instruments.  There’s a big vogue now for playing
original instruments.  Does that affect you at all?

barytonJS:    If you’re speaking of the baroque ensembles that are using these, my view has always been that I don’t like it if somebody pretends to play baroque music according to the olden style, unless the person goes back to the instruments that were used at the time, with the same pitch, the same gut strings, without the end pin on the cello or the gamba, and with the bows that were used.  Another problem comes if it’s presented in a modern kind of surrounding — such as Orchestra Ha
ll — with its large size which makes it nonsensical.  If it’s approximate, or as close as possible the original presentation of the music with the instruments as they were at the time, then I find it very enlightening.  But would I want to spend a great deal of my time listening to it or making it?  I don’t play it because I don’t believe that I’m willing to do that now — although I have a five string cello.  But as long as it’s presented maximally attempting to approximate the contemporary presentation of those works, I find it very important, very enlightening, and sometimes very enjoyableif it’s done by players who are excellent.

BD:    Do you have any opinion about the baryton?

JS:    One of my former students is a famous baryton player, and plays all the Haydn Baryton Trios.  He produces very beautiful recordings and fine sounds at a concert.  It’s always the issue that if the players are on a high instrumental playing level and musical understanding level, then it can be, like anything else, a very enjoyable musical experience.  It’s not comparable to what I do, or what my colleagues do.

BD:    Are the audiences different from Europe to America?

JS:    Only to the extent that the French people are different from the English people, and the Americans and the Japanese are different.  But as audiences, they’re basically the same.  They express themselves somewhat differently in various parts of the world.  The Japanese audiences are very polite.  In a recital they don’t bother you to come back the second time because you’re going to come back again, anyway.  At the end, if they like what they hear, then they just keep applauding politely and they don’t stop.  In Holland they stand up if they like anything, and if they really like it, then they start stamping their feet.  When it first happened to me many, many years ago, I thought they wanted me to go home and I didn’t want to go back on stage!  It’s simply the matter in which they express themselves.  In America, when I first heard people whistling with delight, I thought, again, it’s a bad sign.  In France, it probably would be a bad sign if the audience does that.  We know what happens in the Italian opera houses!

BD:    [Laughs] That’s right! 
Sing it again until you get it right!

JS:    But in every country there is a core of somewhat trained music lovers that hear the same way and listen to the same way and express themselves the same way.

BD:    Has the universality of recordings helped to shrink the world?

JS:    Very much so, because the effect is that when a record company produces a disc and distributes it all over the world, that helps to bring names into the consciousness of the public.  Therefore the star system, which has always been, reached kind of an extreme that is sometimes regrettable, but for a different reason.  Because the star system demands that the audiences pay such an incredible amount of money to attend some of these star performances, it upsets their budget so therefore they haven’t got enough money left to listen to the music available in their communities.  In some instances, that can do some temporary harm.

BD:    Do you find playing fun?

JS:    God forbid that one day I will find myself not enjoying the playing.  I’m way past the time that I enjoy displacing myself from one town to another; that’s the only real punishment about the profession, going with the cello from one continent to another.  But the playing, the music making, is still my hobby.

BD:    Is it special for you to come back and play here in Chicago?

JS:    It is very special because Chicago, as I once wrote, is my home, in spite of the fact that I moved out from here thirty years ago.  My wife’s family still lives here.  My parents have gone, but the fact is that Chicago was one of the most important stretches in my life, and I still can’t help myself.  I’m telling everybody wherever I go, and sometimes it is disturbing to people when I say that the Chicago Symphony is the world’s greatest orchestra.  I’m not known for uttering compliments for any other reason than that’s what I think.  In some sense I feel that I’m on an extended sabbatical, but I still belong to this orchestra.

BD:    Thank you for all that you have given us in performance, on recordings and in the teaching studio.

JS:    It’s my joy.




[Note: Names which are links refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this website.]


J
ános Starker has long been recognized as one of the supreme musicians of the 20th century. Unusual among performing musicians of such renown, throughout his career this great virtuoso has also earned equal distinction for his work as a teacher. For all of his years in America, Starker has proudly advocated and advanced the musical life of his adopted country in both roles.

starkerOf his many honors, two distinguished awards stand as bookends on an extraordinarily distinguished career of more than six decades: the 1948 Grand prix du disque (France) and the 1997 Grammy Award (USA). Over the years János Starker has been the subject of hundreds of major news stories, magazine articles and television documentaries that emphasize his peerless technical mastery, intensely expressive playing, and great communicative power. His performances are broadcast on radio and television everywhere he goes. He has given world premiere performances of concertos by American composers and by composers who have chosen to work in the United States including David Baker, Antal Doráti, Bernard Heiden, Alan Hovhaness, Jean Martinon, Miklós Rózsa, Robert Starer, and Chou Wen-chung, as well as world and American premieres of countless recital works. Starker continues to maintain a full teaching schedule at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, teaches many cello classes during his travels, and performs in recital halls and as a soloist with leading orchestras. Recent concert tours have taken him to Australia, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as throughout the United States.

János Starker has made Indiana University a mecca for the study of the cello. He joined the School of Music faculty in 1958. In 1962 he was awarded the title Distinguished Professor of Music. Starker has also taught with distinction at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada (17 years); the Hochschule für Musik in Essen, Germany (5 years).

In 1970 Starker established two yearly student scholarships at IU to honor his former teachers. He founded the Eva Janzer Memorial Cello Center Foundation at IU in memory of the great cellist and much-loved teacher. The Foundation provides support for cello performance, teaching, and research, not only at Indiana University, but throughout the United States and the world. It also recognizes leading members of the world cello community through yearly awards, provides scholarships for outstanding cello students, and works closely with other organizations with similar purposes.

János Starker is credited with numerous publications brought out by International Music, Peer International, Schirmer, and Occidental Press, and many of his articles have appeared in various magazines.

Many of Starker's students are world-renowned soloists. They have won prestigious international cello competitions, are members of recognized chamber music ensembles, perform as principals or members of the cello sections in leading American and international orchestras, and have important and administrative and teaching positions in schools and institutions of higher education throughout the world.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, and educated there, János Starker survived detention in a World War II Nazi work camp. Invited by Antal Doráti to become first cellist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in 1948 Starker laid aside his solo career and emigrated to the United States. He moved, with the great Fritz Reiner, first to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and then to the Chicago Symphony. In 1954 Starker became an American citizen. Starker resumed his career as a touring soloist in 1958, the same year he joined the faculty of Indiana University.

-- From the Indiana University Website 







© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on November 24, 1987.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and 1999; and on WNUR in 2004.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.