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János Starker

Birthplace: Budapest, Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Death: April 28, 2013 (88)
Bloomington, Monroe, Indiana, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Sandor Starker and Margit Starker
Husband of Rae Starker
Ex-husband of Private
Father of Private and Private
Brother of Tibor Starker; Ede Starker and Private

Occupation: Cellist
Managed by: Adam Robert Brown
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About János Starker

R.I.P. János Starker By Janos Gereben From San Francisco Classical Voice,

János Starker The world of music mourns the passing of János Starker on Sunday, at age 88, in his Bloomington, Indiana, home. (He usually kept the diacritic I dropped from my name.) While celebrated in concert halls everywhere, Starker, the son of a Hungarian Jewish tailor, remained at Indiana University from 1958 on, a loyal and beloved faculty member, also much feared before his mellowing with age.

Although he later became good friends with Mstislav Rostropovich, his rival for "the greatest cellist in the world" title, Starker was typically caustic and truthful when he said, many years ago: "Some critics say, 'Oh, [Starker] is a cold bastard onstage'," in comparison with Rostropovich's more showman-like style, with some overwrought performances and missed notes. "What I'd like to see is a little more humility and dignity displayed toward our art, and less self-aggrandizement. Slava is more popular, but I'm the greater cellist."

Even Rostropovich's most enthusiastic fans (myself included) appreciated the difference between the two, and while preferring one, usually fully acknowledge the other — in a more polite way than the often irascible Starker.

The Telegraph obituary says:

Kissed on the cheek at the age of seven by Pablo Casals and introduced to the raw sound of central European music by Béla Bartók two years later, it was as if he had been anointed to lead the cello section of the Hungarian musical diaspora. Starker possessed a phenomenal technique. His bow attacked the strings with both a ravishing intensity and a deep, biting edge. He was equally startling to watch, his piercing black eyes glaring out from beneath deep black eyebrows. He would often quote his pianist György Sebök: "Create excitement, don’t get excited."

This weekend, talking about the death of Starker, a Berkeley music-lover friend, Lászlo Somogyi, reminded me of one of the triumphs of Hungarian musicians:

At one time in the late '40s or early '50s, Starker was the first cellist of the Met and the same time Lászlo Varga was the first cellist of the New York Philharmonic. When Fritz Reiner got into a fight with (Met general manager Rudolf) Bing and left to be the music director of the Chicago Symphony, Starker moved with him to Chicago.

(At roughly the same time, Georg Solti, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Szell, Antal Doráti, and — a bit later — Christoph von Dohnányi monopolized podiums in the U.S.)

Starker performed around the globe, but not frequently in the Bay Area. Somogyi recalls:

His last performance here was at Hertz Hall with Cal Performances about 20 years ago. I drove him from Hotel Durant, and remember being struck by how nervous he was before the recital. I was surprised because his program included his usual pieces he must have played many times. Before that, around around 1980, he played the Bach suites at Cal Performances, and about 1972, he played as soloist with the Oakland Symphony.

Last time he visited here was when Kent Nagano with the Berkeley Symphony had a recognition concert for Varga's 75th birthday. (Varga was Nagano's first music teacher at SF State). Starker did not play, at the reception he said that he does not travel anymore, he made the trip only to be present at Varga's celebration.

I had the same experience with Starker — the perfectionist, always nervous before the performance, leaving his all on the concert stage, mellowing with age, a great teacher — when watching him in 1999 at fellow cellist David Finckel's La Jolla SummerFest. His insight and philosophy were fascinating, memorable.

At that Oakland Symphony concert Somogyi mentioned, Bonnie Hampton — then the orchestra's first cellist — recalls the excitement of the occasion:

He had an impact on all of us, first with the recordings — the Kodály was out long before he appeared here. Amazing, fascinating performance in Hertz Hall. He never compromised his idea of sound, the intimacy of playing. Even with an orchestra, he didn't try to get his sound out. He played the way he played. We had to make an effort to get into his playing. He was such an artist, all the inner things. It was his personality to keep it very contained. He was quoted: "I need to be perfect and so I can't just let it go."

He came to the Cello Club here and it was vintage Starker. Someone asked him a question and he immediately started arguing. He was a very spiky kind of guy. There's a website, with an interview with Starker that sums up his philosophy.

For a long time, Starker sponsored awards (for cellists) through the Bloomington Indiana Cello Club. About five years ago, I was honored for my teaching class and got to meet Starker when he was well in his 70s, and not long out of the hospital. He was a wonderful host and such a different personality, we had wonderful, collegial cello conversations.

He had mellowed. In his day he could be absolutely brutal. He was a master. Earlier, there was quite a rivalry between Starker and Rostropovich. You liked one or another. He invited Rostropovisch to a Indiana and they had a wonderful time. He brought a kind of perfection to cello playing. He was himself, he was a teacher.

As a "strange kind of child prodigy," in his own words, at age 8 or 9 (accounts vary), Starker was assigned a six-year-old cellist to teach.

Alexander Quartet cellist Sandy Wilson heard about Starker's death on a San Francisco-bound plane:

You caught my colleagues and I by surprise with this sad news. This is a travel day for the ASQ and having made it to Houston from Raleigh Durham, we had not yet heard the news and I was obliged to text your message to them all as we're spread around this preloaded 737 bound for SFO. Their text responses are coming back to me as I sit next to my cello and I realize they revered Starker yet more than I. We're all very sad. I heard Starker in the late '70s and got to play for him about that time thanks to his lasting camaraderie with Aldo Parisot (now 94) who was my cello professor and mentor at Yale. They frequently visited each other's classes in New Haven and Bloomington and the exchanges were a treasured opportunity for their respective students to profit from the mutual respect and, I suspect, a little gentle rivalry between the two venerated world class pedagogues and friends that they were.

I remember Starker's cool, assured demeanor and his detached delivery when dispensing terse and impeccably sharp observations. He could give a compliment, albeit sparingly, but he was seldom mean. Primarily his message was to serve the music better by doing less more efficiently. In that regard his own playing was a marvel of cool and minimal effort. He was truly an example of the "do as I say and as I do" school.

He has left a superb legacy of fine cello playing in his impressive wake. My ASQ colleague, Fred Lifsitz, who spent four years at Indiana offers: "János Starker held the highest of standards which have inspired many generations of musicians."

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János Starker's Timeline

July 5, 1924
Budapest, Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
April 28, 2013
Age 88
Bloomington, Monroe, Indiana, United States