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Janos Starker: Cello virtuoso whose teaching had as big an impact as his own playing


Janos Starker was a superb cellist who gained his early experience leading some of the world's greatest orchestras before achieving an international reputation as a soloist, then going on to become one of the most distinguished teachers of his generation. He was also a gifted writer and contributed countless articles and treatises on his instrument in addition to publishing countless editions of works for the cello.

Starker was born in Budapest to Russian parents and was given a cello at the age of six; his two brothers were both violinists so he had no choice. It was soon clear that he had an unusual talent and he was accepted at the Franz Liszt Academy when he was seven years old. He became a student of Adolf Schiffer, a much respected teacher who had been a pupil of the legendary David Popper, and from this point his future was decided.

This was a vintage era at the Academy with Jeno Hubay, Bela Bartok, and Zoltan Kodaly on the staff and Erno Dohnanyi as director. "They created an international spirit," Starker once told me. "Not every student was a genius, but we had a core of teachers whose beliefs and musical understanding were identical, though they spoke differently about it. These musicians represented the kind of musical traditions which later came to the West. We could claim a line that reached back to those who know how the masterpieces in our repertoire should be played, because many had learned from the composers themselves.''

Starker considered that the most important influence on him at this time was Leo Weiner, who taught chamber music at the Academy. He was the teacher of practically every prominent Hungarian musician of the 20th century including Antal Dorati, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Geza Andar and Gyorgy Pauk. "The list is inexhaustible," Starker would say. "He was not only the greatest pedagogue whoever existed, but although he travelled very little, he knew everybody in his field."

When he was eight Starker took on his first pupil, and at 12 he had five. His performing and teaching activities have always been parallel, a situation which was of great value in his later career. From this same time he was giving concerts regularly as a child prodigy and made his official debut playing the Dvorak concerto at 14. He left the Academy at 15 without graduating and concentrated on his solo career.

During the Second World War Hungary was a member of the Nazi bloc and conditions for following a solo career made it so difficult to continue that Starker gave up the cello altogether. He picked it up again in autumn 1945 and became principal cellist of the Budapest Opera and the Budapest Orchestra. The following year he achieved a resounding success as a soloist at a concert in Vienna and also won the bronze medal in the Geneva Cello Competition.

Then quite suddenly Starker came to a terrifying conclusion. "I played like a blind man," he explained to me. "What happens to the bird who sings but doesn't know how it sings? That's what happens to child prodigies. One day they wake up and ask themselves how they do it – and have no answers. Consistency is the difference between the professional and the amateur. I was grown up and could no longer depend on instinct. I nearly had a nervous breakdown."

His successes in Vienna and Geneva brought him several offers of concerts, but he was now afraid to perform on stage alone so he went to France, where he joined a string quartet. Here he began to think about his own ideas for developing the technique of his instrument, trying out theories for bowing, phrasing, breathing and the distribution of muscle power. So began a lifetime of analysis and application with perfection as the ultimate goal – a target he never abandoned right until his death.

By 1947 he had regained his confidence and resumed solo appearances but travelling on a Hungarian passport presented problems, so after two years living in Paris in 1948 he emigrated to the US, where Antal Dorati, then conductor of the Dallas Symphony, invited him to become principal cellist. Fritz Reiner soon spotted his talent and after only one season offered him the job of principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. When Reiner took over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953 he took Starker with him as principal cellist, a position he held for nine years. He described working for Reiner as "one of the great joys of my life".

In 1954 he became an American citizen and when the Hungarian Revolution broke out two years later he brought his family to the US. That same year he made his British debut recital at the Wigmore Hall in London and critics praised "the intensity of his musical thought'' and the "electrifying mastery'' with which he played the Kodaly Solo Sonata Op 8.

Two years later he resigned from the Chicago Symphony, feeling that the time had come to resume his solo career. But shortly after that he was asked by Wilfred Bain, then Dean of Indiana University Music School in Bloomington, if he would like to join the faculty. He agreed to take it on for two years on probation as he regarded Bloomington as a sleepy little western town where nothing really happens. "I came here in 1958," he told me in the early 1980s. "I'm still here and I think I'll be buried here." Prophetic words.

The security of his university appointment helped Starker re-embark on his solo career and he continued to make many successful appearances both as soloist and as chamber musician with some of his most distinguished colleagues. He also made hundreds of recordings.

Starker's reputation as a soloist and teacher attracted students from all over the world, a state of affairs he admitted could not have taken place but for the university. "The most important thing for me is teaching," he once said. "I was basically born to be a teacher. That's my temperament. No matter how great the ovation is after a concert, the people eventually sit down and stop applauding. But if you teach, you may affect generations."

Janos Starker, cellist and teacher: born Budapest 5 July 1924; married 1944 Eva Uranyi (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 1960 Rae Busch (one daughter); died Bloomington, Indiana 28 April 2013.