In 1945 an American bomb mistakenly hit a Nazi concentration camp. The torrent of shrapnel barely missed a 21-year-old Hungarian-Jewish cellist who had thrown himself in a ditch for protection and the explosion's roar luckily left his hearing unimpaired.
"Since that time I've always felt an obligation," Janos Starker says. "My two brothers were killed and I was lucky enough to survive. I was given a message that I have a duty to carry."
That message meant that Starker, who opens the Shriver Hall Concert Series on Saturday night, had to try to become the most perfect cellist alive and that unlike almost every other star instrumentalist he had to become a full-time teacher. Few can doubt his success. While both Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma may be more famous, Starker was the innovator who brought cello playing to new heights, forging a victory over the instrument's bulk to play swifter, lighter, more free-flowing and more perfectly in tune than anyone had thought possible. And from his chair as Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University, Starker regularly attracts the cream of the world's finest young cellists.
"Concerts are not satisfying enough if I don't also teach," Starker likes to say. "After a standing ovation, an audience sits down. Teaching passes through generations."
Starker's also different in another way. He's got what his enemies -- and they included such important musicians as the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy -- call one of the biggest mouths in the music business. His fearless tendency to speak his mind has cost him opportunities -- with orchestras whose music directors he has offended and with record executives whose bidding he has declined to do -- that have gone to less deserving musicians.
Here's the reason, for example, that Starker rarely performs with either the New York Philharmonic or the Orchestra de Paris: "The Paris Orchestra is with the New York Philharmonic the world's worst."
And here's the one that keeps cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, the music director of the National Symphony, from conducting for Starker when he visits Washington: "It's with him that the public has fun, not with Bach or Beethoven. Slava [Rostropovich] is more popular, but I'm the greater cellist."
"I happen to be the sort of person who doesn't mince words, therefore my words are often misconstrued," Starker says in a reference to a remark he once made that unintentionally caused a longtime rift between him and the the late cellist Leonard Rose, whom Starker deeply admired as a musician and a man. "Just before he died we finally reconciled. He was one of the most beautiful and elegant cellists who ever lived and it was a damn shame we weren't closer."
Most of Starker's eloquence is reserved for his playing. Some critics call him cold, but one suspects that these are the same critics who called Heifetz cold because of the great violinist's similarly icy demeanor. Starker's playing, like that of Heifetz, is white hot rather than red hot. His Bartok gleams in black and white; his Debussy has the unmediated lucidity of a prose poem; his Brahms is moving without being mushy; and his Bach dances joyously and pointedly. Other cellists -- Ma with angel-in-rapture mugging or Rostropovich with his gorilla-sized hugs and Love-Potion-No. 9 apres concert kisses -- may look like they're having more fun; they do not play the instrument better, however.
Starker himself recalls promising himself "to play the best that could be done" as a 9-year-old prodigy in his native Budapest. His progress was so rapid that he was -- by age 15 -- the principal cellist of the Budapest Opera. He showed precocious promise in another direction too. Noting how easy Starker found it to explain things, his teacher gave him other talented students to teach. One of his first students was a 7-year-old named Mihaly Virizlay, who is now principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony and whom Starker calls "still my favorite student and one of the greatest cellists alive."
Starker was able to survive the Nazis' initial round-up of "undesirables" in Budapest because he was one of many Jews to whom the Swedish embassy, under its heroic ambassador Raoul Wallenberg, issued fake passports.
"They even arranged to make me principal cellist of the Goteborg Orchestra," Starker says. "Of course, I never got to Goteborg, but I did get to live."
At the war's end, Starker resumed his post at the Budapest Opera and in 1948 won a Grand Prix du Disque for a recording of his countryman Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello that aficionados regard as one of the dozen or so greatest solo recordings made on any instrument. But he came to the United States to join the Dallas Symphony as principal cellist because he did not feel ready for a soloist's career.