Deceptive Cadence
3:00 pm
Mon April 29, 2013

Remembering Janos Starker, The Cellist 'Born To Be A Teacher'

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 3:48 pm

Renowned concert soloist and prolific, Grammy-winning cellist Janos Starker died Sunday. He was 88.

Starker's career began in his native Hungary, where he entered the Budapest Academy at age 7 and made his solo debut four years later. Starker dedicated his life to music, and left a legacy of teaching and performing.

Starker began playing cello in the early 1930s. Both of his brothers played the violin, so the thinking was that he should study something different. His teachers recognized his talent immediately.

"My teacher called and said, 'Would you like to play the Dvorak Concerto'?" Starker once recalled. "She went, 'This afternoon.' And I said, 'May I use the music?' She said, 'Sure.' And I played it, and that was supposedly one of the big dramatic successes of childhood prodigies." Starker would record the concerto several times later in his life.

Starker was born to Jewish parents; he and they survived a Nazi labor camp during WWII, but his two older brothers did not. In 1948, Starker came to the U.S., where he played with the Dallas Symphony and later the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But in a 2011 interview, Starker said teaching was his calling.

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

Starker joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 1958, and remained there for the rest of his life.

Music school dean Gwyn Richards says Starker had a reputation for being tough on his students.

"He was someone you didn't want to disappoint," Richards says. "You always wanted him to think well of what you were doing. There was always a blend of the technical and the musical, and you wanted to succeed on both fronts."

Former IU basketball coach Bobby Knight, himself known for the demands he placed on his players, once asked Starker to come speak to his team. Afterward, one of the players approached Starker and asked if he could tell the cellist a joke:

"Mr. Starker, there was a car accident, and three cellists died, and they all tried to get to heaven," the player said. "St. Peter asked the first one, 'Who did you study with?' 'Well, Rostropovich.' 'No, you have to go to hell,' St. Peter said. The next one replied, 'Leonard Rose.' The response? 'You have to go to hell.' And the third one comes. 'Who did you study with?' 'Starker.' St. Peter says, 'You may come in. You already went through hell.'"

After learning of Starker's death, world-renowned pianist Menahem Pressler spent the day Sunday in his studio making music. Both men survived the Nazis, both played in Dallas and Chicago, and both reconnected as faculty members at Indiana University.

"He knew the pieces well, and his standard was very, very high," Pressler said. "But he was a perfectionist, so during performance he was very concerned with perfection — and he was perfect."

Starker pursued a solo career while teaching, but his declining health took him off the concert stage in 2005. He continued to teach until this past winter, often inviting students to his house for a lesson. He often said teaching was what kept him alive.

"I had very little chance of surviving WWII," Starker once said. "And when I survived it, I said I should make it justifiable why I stayed alive."

Janos Starker's legacy can be heard not only in his own recordings, but also in the hundreds of students he inspired.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The renowned cellist Janos Starker died yesterday at the age of 88. His career began in Hungary, his first lessons by the age of 6. Starker dedicated his life to performing and teaching. Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU has this remembrance.

SARA WITTMEYER, BYLINE: Janos Starker began playing cello in the early 1930s. Both of his brothers played the violin, so the thinking was he should study something different. His teachers recognized his talent immediately. And when he was 14, Starker made his professional debut.

JANOS STARKER: My teacher called and said, would you like to play Dvorak concerto? Said, when? This afternoon. I said may I use the music? She said sure.

WITTMEYER: He recorded it several times later on.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DVORAK CELLO CONCERTO")

WITTMEYER: Starker's big break came in 1939 when he performed the Kodaly "Sonata for Solo Cello," a piece some said was unplayable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SONATA FOR SOLO CELLO")

WITTMEYER: Starker was born to Jewish parents, and he and they survived a Nazi labor camp during World War II. His two older brothers did not. Janos Starker immigrated to the United States in 1948. He played with the Dallas Symphony, then the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony. But at a 2011 interview, Starker said teaching was his calling.

STARKER: People questioned, of course, the validity of it because I played all those three, four, 5,000 concerts in my life. But I think I was put to this Earth basically to be a teacher.

WITTMEYER: Starker joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 1958 where he remained for the rest of his life.

STARKER: Lift up your arm. Do you see what you're doing?

GWYN RICHARDS: He was someone you didn't want to disappoint.

WITTMEYER: Music school dean Gwyn Richards says Starker had a reputation for being tough on his students.

RICHARDS: You always wanted him to think well of what you were doing. There was always a blend of the technical and the musical, and you wanted to succeed on both fronts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WITTMEYER: After learning of Starker's death, world-renowned pianist Menahem Pressler spent the day yesterday in his studio making music. Both men survived the Nazis, both played in Dallas and Chicago and reconnected as faculty members at Indiana University.

MENAHEM PRESSLER: He knew the pieces well, and his standard was very, very high. So during a performance, he was very much concerned with perfection. And he was perfect.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WITTMEYER: Starker pursued a solo career while teaching, but his declining health took him off the concert stage in 2005. He continued to teach until this past winter, often inviting students to his house for a lesson. Starker often said teaching was why he was alive.

STARKER: I had very little chance to survive World War II. And when I survived it, then I said that I should make it justifiable that why I stayed alive.

WITTMEYER: Janos Starker's legacy can be heard not only in his own recordings but in the hundreds of students he inspired. For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer in Bloomington, Indiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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