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World Renowned Cellist Janos Starker Dies At 88

Janos Starker was a child prodigy who performed thousands of concerts around the world and taught at the IU Jacobs School of Music.

This video was assembled by WTIU and includes program material produced by Paula Gordon and “The Paula Gordon Show”(sm).

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 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.

Sara Wittmeyer

Sara Wittmeyer is the News Bureau Chief for WFIU and WTIU. Sara has more than a decade of experience as a news reporter and previously served with KBIA at the University of Missouri, WNKU at Northern Kentucky University in Highland Heights, KY, and at WCPO News in Cincinnati.

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