William W. Preucil, Jr.
Harry E. Athan
It is a singular experience to encounter a human being as
authentically great as Janos Starker. A "force of nature" is one way to
describe him. Acolytes and critics alike could agree with the persistent
"fire and ice" moniker. (It tickled his magnificent sense of humor.) Simply
to be in the presence of Starker (as he was known around the world) was an
exhilarating experience precious to the millions who experience his
music-making first hand, countless more who genuinely did know him from his
astonishing array of recordings, and to generations of grateful, often
My husband and I were blessed with one of his greatest gifts -- Janos'
genius for friendship.
His influence as an international superstar cellist is legendary, whether as
a supremely gifted solo artist, in partnership with a pianist (he refused to
call them "accompanists") or in front of a symphony. In addition to
searingly beautiful memories for concert-goers, his influence is codified
forever in his extraordinary range of recordings (over 165 of them.) Yet his
humility (absolutely genuine) shone through in reminding us, again and
again, that genius resides with the composer while he, a performer, was a "recreative
artist." So you can imagine how elated he must have been that his grandson,
J.P. Saxe, has turned out to be an exceptional "creative" artist with
enormous promise as a singer-songwriter.
His was not a false modesty. Starker was keenly aware of his extraordinary
achievements. He took deep satisfaction with having achieved a stature which
put him among a handful of the world's greatest musicians, those he
considered "the dehors class" -- outside of categorization, instantly
recognizable and absolutely identifiable to the listener anywhere in the
Janos Starker will be saluted far into the future and across the world for
the boundless beauty he created as a preeminent musician of the twentieth
century. So how would a vigilant friend often out of the country a lot more
than in it as he toured the world bestow his blessing when we were
contemplating our program series ("...Conversations with People at the
Leading Edge") in 1995? Not only did he agree to be one of our very first
guests (along with the ever-gracious Bill McGlaughlin). Janos blessed us
with our theme music -- a selection from one of his earliest, breathtaking
recordings of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (the full set of which
he famously recorded five times, the last in 1997 winning the Grammy for
"Best Recording by a Soloist without Accompaniment".)
When this wonderful friend breathed his last this morning, I could not get
the powerful symmetry of "expired" and "inspired" out of my head. In the
end, with all the outward achievements and inward accomplishments, Janos
Starker -- child prodigy, singular virtuoso, author and inventor (the
"Starker bridge" is but one example) -- might best be summed up in his own
sense of what really mattered. As he breathed his last, he was reportedly at
peace, as well he should have been having fulfilled his lifetime commitment:
to honor those who did not survive the ravages of the Second World War. (His
two older brothers, both gifted violinists, died at the hands of the Nazis,
who murdered much of Eastern Europe's musical world.)
It's no accident that it was Starker and his cello who brought Hungarian
composer Zoltan Kodály, Starker's fellow countryman, to the world stage in a
meaningful way (earning Starker France's 1948 Grande prix du disque for
playing music hitherto considered unplayable). Or that Janos repeatedly made
places in his world for others seeking freedom from tyranny, in whatever
guise it appeared.
Yes, Starker was renowned the world over for his supreme command of
classical music, for being the ultimate, perhaps finest cello teacher in the
world, and for his absolute mastery of the entire cello repertoire. Yes,
Starker was celebrated in famous concert hall around the world. However he
was perhaps even better appreciated in the countless lesser or unknown halls
which others of his stature would never grace. Think Mozambique. Or the
"seminars" -- he refused to call them "master classes" as he loathed
pretentiousness -- where he insisted everyone learned from the experience.
In honoring Starker's passage, there are legions who will speak publicly and
privately to his absolute commitment to beauty and its creation, to his
intensity, to the demands he placed on himself, on those with whom he
performed, and especially on his students for whom he felt the keenest
possible responsibility to "open doors" as he put it.
But I wonder if even Starker's most ardent admirers know that in choosing
aspiring cellists who would have the unparalleled gift of his masterful
teaching, he picked not "the best" (confident, he said, that the truly
gifted would find their way) even though it was they who could further
burnish his well deserved and outsized reputation. No, he chose those who
were gifted enough and whom he felt sure he could help the most.
He was as demanding of his students as he was of himself, yet his tenderness
toward them was legendary. We experienced both when, during one terrible
week, we had three deaths in our immediate family. Given his family history,
his note to us rang especially true. It said simply, "Grin and bear it." A
remarkable insight into how best to endure so that, when one has created the
opportunity, one can prevail.
An intense forty-year friendship is as impossible to summarize here as
Maestro Starker's lifetime of adventure and accomplishment could be
condensed into the two magnificent days we spent recording our final five
hour conversation with Professor Starker in 2011. (Yes, it will be available
on the internet, all in due course.) So we will hold in our hearts the large
and the small:
After a day listening intently to the musical masters known for their
"Muscle Shoals Sound", Janos reciprocated his appreciation of their talent
by ripping into his Kodály at its wildest. Suffice it to say, these guys who
had worked with Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, The Staple
Singer, Bob Dylan et al., sat there slack-jawed. Then the work began --
exploring how together we might bring Richard Strauss' Don Quixote to life
on television, decades before music videos had even been imagined or
cross-discipline collaborations became a vogue.
It is telling how thoroughly Starker prized a vibrant sense of humor, and
his was as pungent as the Hungarian sausage of which he could never find
enough. We shall always admire that when others in the music world famously
failed to share his commitment to a good laugh, it was their loss, not his.
What a joy to be part of his "Musicales" -- an intimate group gathered in a
lovely home, Janos and his cello settling in, Scotch and cigarettes readily
at hand. These were lively exchanges of music, questions and laughter,
stories and quips adding up to a charmed window into his wider (and smaller)
musical universe. Precious memories for the favored few.
And we'll treasure the night we three witnessed a world famous performer
outrageously violating Starker's central doctrine for a performer -- a
professional musician ALWAYS performs to the very best of his ability, no
matter what -- "dogging it" in performance. At the sight of Janos in the
Green Room afterward, the guy paled, capable only of a wheedling stammer,
"If I'd known you were in the house, I would have played better... ."
How can we forget Janos' pleasure in sharing the exquisite Scotch with which
his good friend Yo-Yo Ma had gifted him?
Or the memorable Starker New Year's Eve party, ringing in the new with a
boisterous kiss from the late great Josef Gingold as a three hour impromptu
"jam session" began.
Or Janos' delight when we arranged for him to receive the "Key to the City"
when he helped us celebrate the opening of our television studio in 1986. Or
how kindly Starker was then to invite our awe-struck engineer to call him
Or his deep satisfaction as Barack Obama emerged on the world's scene, in
contrast to the despair he and fellow Hungarians felt when America elected a
General to the presidency in 1952.
Or perhaps most generalizable, Starker's gleeful advise for us when faced
with a gatekeeper standing between us and a future we wanted to explore,
"Just tell him you're pursuing your dream." Janos was ever so confident that
would carry the day!
Now our dearest friend belongs to the ages. This great and good man joins
the ancestors, an enduring and true friend with the gift for recognizing
possibility and creating beauty, come what may. With the richness of our
memories and sad as we are, it would be profoundly ungrateful to grieve. We
choose instead to follow his teaching: We shall grin and bear it.
Other Obituary Stories:
Janos Starker Celebrated Cellist Dies At 88
Janos Starker Celebrated Cellist Dies At 88
Janos Starker A Master of the Cello Dies At 88