Remembering Janos Starker

Guest post by Zachary Preucil
(originally published on Polyphonic.org's On Campus Blog)

Like many cellists across the world, I was deeply saddened this past Sunday to learn of Janos Starker's passing. For me, however, his death didn't only represent a cultural loss, but a personal loss as well, for I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Starker on multiple occasions, and I'm actually distantly related to him--my uncle is his son-in-law. As a matter of fact, my Dad, a cellist in the Lyric Opera of Chicago orchestra who also served as my teacher when I was growing up, studied with Mr. Starker for two years, and so much of his teaching has influenced my personal identity as a cellist, both technically and musically. As I sat in front of my Facebook newsfeed on Sunday afternoon, watching tributes to Mr. Starker pour in from many of my cellist friends, I found myself reflecting on the few occasions I had had the opportunity to meet with him, all of which were brief but none of which were insignificant--for as all who knew him will surely agree, having a mere conversation with the man was an unforgettable experience, let alone hearing him perform. Whenever you entered his presence, you just knew that you weren't interacting with an ordinary human being. You were in the presence of a genius.

Probably the first time I heard of Mr. Starker was when my Dad slid a copy of his famous technique book, "An Organized Method of String Playing," onto my music stand when I was in seventh grade. Mr. Starker's name was somewhat familiar to me, but only because I had heard it thrown out in conversation on random occasions throughout my childhood, along with other seemingly insignificant words like "Eastman" and "Gingold" and "Strauss" (clearly, my musical aspirations had yet to take hold when I twelve). Dad gave me some exercises to work on from Mr. Starker's book, and I remember finding them to be extraordinarily helpful as I began to focus on the finer points of cello playing for the first time. My first memory of actually meeting Mr. Starker was about a year after I first encountered "An Organized Method," when he was playing a concert with my cousin (his granddaughter) in a Chicago suburb not far from where we lived. Afterwards, my family and I went backstage, and I distinctly remember my grandmother shepherding me over to where the Starkers were holding court.

"Zachary, do you want to say hi to Mr. Starker?"

"Oh--okay," I agreed. I wasn't sure if I had actually met him before, but I knew he was supposed to be famous, and he had certainly sounded pretty good in the concert, so I figured I'd introduce myself. I went up and shook his hand; my grandmother told him how I'd played "Song of the Birds" in church that morning, and my Dad said how he was passing Mr. Starker's "secrets" on to me. I forget what Mr. Starker actually said, but I know it was something about how great it was to have another cellist in the family and how much he loved "Song of the Birds." (I doubt he would have loved the way I'd played it in church, after having my fingers ice over during the sermon. But that's beside the point.)

The next time I saw him was about four years later for my undergrad audition at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, where he had been teaching for half a century. It was a cold January day in Bloomington, and considering it was my first college audition, I was quite nervous. This feeling of trepidation was only exacerbated when the person auditioning before me went into the room and I caught a fleeting glimpse of Mr. Starker sitting sternly behind the professors' table.

He's on the committee? I remember thinking to myself, somewhat unnerved. The possibility of him listening to me hadn't crossed my mind. What if I played badly? What would he say? What if…

But there was no more time for "what ifs"; before I knew it, the door had opened once more, and I anxiously stepped inside, wordlessly handing my program sheet to the judges. As I got situated, Starker looked up.

"Zachary, we received a Christmas card from you, but you didn't write that you were coming to audition here!" he exclaimed, with a hint of an indulgent smile.

"Oh, well, I guess we didn't mention that," I said awkwardly; I hadn't realized my parents had thought to send our annual Christmas letter to the Starkers. Did that mean they knew I "enjoyed biking, running, and writing novels"? I made a mental note to exercise greater editorial power in the writing of future Christmas letters, and tried to focus.

"And what will you be playing for us?" Mr. Starker said seriously; the ghost of a smile had suddenly vanished. Now was the time for music-making.

"The first movement of the Lalo concerto," I responded.

Starker merely nodded; I took that as a sign to play whenever I was ready. Taking a deep breath, I lifted my bow and started the Lalo. Mr. Starker seemed to pay attention during the opening, but after a minute or so, he began to look through my application materials, as if he'd already made his decision. Yikes, I thought to myself. I hope that was good…..

It seemed to have been satisfactory, though, because soon afterwards another professor on the panel asked for my Bach, and then just like that, the audition was over. However, Mr. Starker wasn't quite finished with me.

"Who drove you down?" he asked.

"Oh--my Dad," I said tentatively.

"Send him in," Starker nodded.

"Oh--okay," I replied, hoping that Dad hadn't wandered too far away; luckily, he was right outside the door, and was happy to step in and visit. Still recovering from the audition experience, I packed up my cello in the hall and tried to avoid making eye contact with the poor boy auditioning after me, who was undoubtedly confused as to why my Dad had been invited into the audition room. Later, driving back to Chicago through the dark, barren cornfields of southern Indiana, Dad remarked on the privilege I'd just experienced.

"That's so cool that you got to play for Starker!" he exclaimed, his excitement evident.

"Yeah--after that, I can do anything!" I replied.

Funnily enough, the next time I came into contact with the great master was just two months later in March, when the Chicago Cello Society presented a concert commemorating Mr. Starker's famous recording of twenty concert pieces by David Popper. Each cellist was assigned one of the pieces, including my Dad, and Mr. Starker himself made the trek up from Bloomington to be in attendance. As a result, about half of the cellists in the Chicago area showed up that night, and all of us who were there remember how truly inspirational it was. Perhaps the most memorable part of the evening was when the president of the society recognized Mr. Starker's presence at the start of the program, acknowledging him as "one of the greatest cellists of the past fifty years." There was thunderous applause as Mr. Starker stood, one hand on his cane for support, acknowledging the crowd with a genuine nod of thanks. All of the performers ended up playing great, and in spite of a brief scare when my Dad went on without the music after having told my mother and I he was planning to use it (we spent the entire performance, which ultimately went well, praying in the upper balcony), it proved to be an unforgettable evening. The concert was made even more special by the fact that several of the cellists were former students of Mr. Starker's; I remember finding my eyes widening steadily as I scanned the bios in the program and saw his name crop up again and again. It was inspiring, and quite literally awe-inducing, to contemplate just how many students Mr. Starker had taught throughout the course of his five decades in Bloomington, and how many of them had gone on to become such amazing and influential musicians.

Four years passed before I saw Mr. Starker again, in January 2012, for what was to be the last time. Now a senior at the New England Conservatory, I was once again traveling the music school circuit as I applied to graduate schools, and Bloomington had found its way onto my list for a second time. This time, however, Mr. Starker wasn't on the committee; his health was deteriorating, and while he was still employed by the Jacobs School for the fifty-fifth consecutive year, he was only teaching a few students from his home. Wanting to take advantage of our brief stay in town, my Dad emailed Mrs. Starker to see if we could visit after my audition, and it was arranged that we would head over to their house in the early afternoon. It was a bright, clear day as we drove through the streets of Bloomington; the remains of a mid-winter snow dripped from the sun-drenched trees lining the Starkers' street, and to my surprise there were even a few birds that flitted about the rooftops, chirping pleasantly in the crisp January air.

A maid answered the door when we arrived; after we'd announced ourselves, we were led directly into the Starkers' music room, which was a true feast for the eye. An enormous portrait of the master hung on the back wall, while several shelves of recordings covered the wall opposite, gleaming in the sunlight that streamed through the corner windows. Comfortable couches surrounded a polished wooden end table, upon which multiple cigarette holders were placed, each emblazoned with a golden S. If I hadn't already known Mr. Starker, I think I could have pretty much figured out the type of person he was just by looking around that room. It exuded his personality in every sense.

He entered a moment later, alert but still quite dependent on his cane, and greeted us warmly.

"How was your audition?" he asked me.

"Oh, it was all right," I smiled.

"I remember all those audition days--listening to umpteen cellists," he sad jokingly. I was reminded of just how thick his accent was; whenever I spoke with him, I found myself having to employ particularly great concentration in order to process what he was saying.

He led us over to the couches and we all had a seat, Mr. Starker reaching for a cigarette. My goodness, could that man smoke. He went through two cigarettes in our thirty minute conversation, the smoke funneling through his nostrils and hovering around his head in a wispy fog. Within seconds, I felt it seeping through my nose, scratching uncomfortably at the back of my throat. I swallowed compulsively.

"Where else are you applying, Zachary?" Mr. Starker asked, leaning back in his seat. I reeled off my list of schools and teachers, which he acknowledged with a silent nod of approval.

"Well, if you should find yourself landing in Bloomington, I would be happy to hear you," he said seriously.

"That would be a privilege," I replied, my stomach doing a slight flip as I imagined how nerve-racking--and yet utterly amazing--it would be to play for him.

But my cellistic prospects did not dominate the conversation for very long; our discussion soon turned to Mr. Starker's countless accomplishments, which were staring unblinkingly at us from every corner of the room.

"So you've recorded all of the Bach suites three times?" my Dad asked him.

"Five," Mr. Starker corrected him. "The last one won a Grammy, it's right over there.…"

I gulped nervously as I turned my head to the corner where the golden trophy sat, gleaming majestically.

"Are all these recordings yours?" Dad inquired, looking up at the towering shelves behind us.

"No, the first row is from my students," said Mr. Starker, gesturing with his cigarette. "Second row is also from my students….third row is your brother and the quartet….fourth row, now, those are mine…."

Later, as the ash tray filled with residue and the smoke from Mr. Starker's second cigarette wound its way up to the ornate wooden ceiling, he began to share some reflections from his life, talking about how he had started at Bloomington and where some of his first students had ultimately ended up. I once again found myself in awe of how genuine and selfless he was. He never bragged; he just stated the facts. It just so happened that the "facts" were something anybody else would probably have bragged about.

"I always tried to bring cellists together," he said, his face alight with reminiscence. "So that we can have our own community and get along. We can't always be fighting about things."

He smiled, his eyes glassy from the smoke.

"I don't get too many applicants these days," he told us abruptly. "Most people know the situation here, but I do have some students come to the house. It's a good living. I just get to sit here and do crossword puzzles and twiddle my thumbs…."

We sat in silence for a moment, listening to the song of the birds echoing outside. I was suddenly struck by the enormity of the man's life--of all he had accomplished, of all he had done for the world of music and cello playing. It was mind-boggling to realize that he had been living here, in this small Indiana college town, for over half a century, teaching students who had gone on to become some of the greatest musicians alive today. And he was happy--he was content. His life's work was complete, and now he had the luxury of reflecting upon its fruits.

It soon became evident that our visit was over; Mr. Starker needed his rest, and we needed to get on the road. I shook his hand and expressed my hope that we'd meet again soon. He nodded and led us to the door.

"All the very best," he said in farewell, his Hungarian accent crackling like a perfectly-executed up-bow staccato. As we exited onto the walkway outside, I glanced back at him one last time. His gaze had turned to the stained glass window, which cast his face in a dancing rainbow, throwing his aged skin into sharp relief. It was as if he was looking ahead, beyond this life, into the next great adventure. He knew he was in the twilight of his years, and he was more than ready to embrace the dazzling new dawn.

It is interesting that, while these were the only times I actually met Mr. Starker, I feel as though I've come to know him well, through the influence of his students, colleagues, and teachings. In my practice, I employ his technique, and in my performances, I attempt to emulate the virtues of cello playing he so extolled. In the end, it doesn't matter how many times I met Mr. Starker, for I have met him hundreds of times in the music that I play. His genius was so great that he continues to live wherever a fledgling cellist opens his technique book in a small practice room, listens to his recordings in a library, or takes a lesson with one of the myriad of his former students. His contributions to the world are an inextinguishable flame, burning brightly wherever the passion for music-making is strong. As he once famously stated, "Music is one of the essentials in human existence, almost identical with eating, sleeping, making love, the basic functions that keep a human being alive. Music simply, is one of the blessings and joys of civilized human existence."

Rest in peace, Mr. Starker. And may the memory of your life forever remind us what it means to truly live.

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