Cello maker and cello master Janos Starker's 'brutal' pace brings him back to Baltimore

October 19, 1990|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

A WEEK AGO Sunday in New York, Janos Starker began recording three Martinu solo cello sonatas with pianist Rudolf Firkusny. Wednesday he flew to Bloomington, Ind., where he teaches, for an Indiana University dinner. Thursday he was back in New York finishing the sonatas and Friday he was home in Bloomington teaching his cello students. Tomorrow, he's in Baltimore, and next week, four recitals in California.

Little wonder when asked when he plans to retire, Starker jokes, "Every teacher on Friday wants to retire."

The recent rushing around is not an untypical instance of "the brutality of a public career" Starker says all professional musicians endure. It is what he prepares his students for as they head into music careers as orchestra or ensemble members, teachers or, more rarely, concert artists.

And yet the pace is slower now for Starker, 66, a balding, trim swimmer, pool player, husband, father, grandfather, teacher, concert performer, writer, recording artist and for decades one of the world's foremost cellists.

Some slowdown. He has performed in 3,000 concerts and recitals. "For years," he says, "I regularly played in at least 100 concerts and recitals each season. Now, at my age, I try to keep my solo engagements to around 45 a year, but I have not decreased my teaching schedule."

With Indiana colleague and pianist Menahem Pressler, Starker opens the 1990-91 Shriver Hall Concert Series at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow with a program of three sonatas for cello and piano by Brahms, Beethoven and Bernhard Heiden. The 1958 Heiden piece was composed specifically for Starker and Pressler, two longtime collaborators.

Why that program? "Menahem is very busy and I'm in this second phase of my life where I don't play so many concerts. After 60, traveling is more a chore. So we play pieces we've played many times together. The Brahms and Beethoven are major works. The Heiden was composed for us in 1958."

The program for Starker's first appearance here in 10 years is in keeping with a trend featuring such pieces since the 1940s, he said. Cello players in the 19th century and early 20th century generally played a great number of short solo pieces.

Then, in a change, players felt it more important to prove one's worth by playing the major, longer works such as the Shriver Hall trio. The playing of concerto works, featuring one instrument against an orchestra, hasn't changed except for more 20th century pieces now, he said.

"Music badly needs changes in its stereotyped programming," Starker said. "We're getting back to the shorter encore pieces also. That's the reason I recorded the 20 salon pieces by Popper." David Popper was a turn-of-the-century Hungarian cellist and composer. Starker's CD recording in March was nominated for a Grammy Award.

The Martinu recordings in New York were part of a four CD project just finished for RCA Victor Red Seal. Other composers recorded were Strauss, Dvorak, Bartok, Brahms, Rachmaninov and Schumann. For various selections, Starker played with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony and pianist Shigeo Meriki. Starker's recordings were among many, past and planned.

Comparisons between musicians are inevitably made. But after leading musicians reach "a certain place in the musical world," Starker eschews rating them, including himself.

"Greatness is not measureable. It's one of the sad parts of artistic existence that artists are classified 1, 2 and 3. This is

nonsense. People have called me for reactions about Leonard Bernstein. You can't classify Bernstein." It's a statement implying deep respect. A year ago, Starker played an important series of Bonn concerts including Bernstein music.

It is his teaching of hundreds of cello students before and after he came to the United States in 1948 that especially pleases the artist. Born in Hungary of Russian Jewish emigre parents, Starker at 6 began learning the cello because his two brothers played the violin. He's still learning and teaching.

During the World War II siege of Budapest, Starker survived when an American plane hit a Nazi work camp by mistake. His two older brothers had been taken to a concentration camp and it was later learned they were killed. Starker talks little of this. But partly as a result, he has lived his extremely productive life feeling an overpowering duty toward his music and the memory of his family.

Teaching began at 8. His first student, Eva Janzer, was 6. She was the first to become a leading cellist. A music center at Indiana University is named for her.

Starker's second student was Mihaly Virizlay, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's principal cellist. "I was 13 and he was 6. 'My little brother,' one of the finest cellists in the world, he was with me for many years. He followed me as the principal cellist of the Chicago Symphony."

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