János Starker is known throughout the world as a soloist, recording artist, and teacher. Born in Budapest in 1924, Janos Starker came to the United States in 1948, where he subsequently held the principal cellist chair in three American orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. Starker then resumed his international performing career in 1958. Since then he has performed thousands of concerts with orchestras and in recitals throughout the world. When not touring, János Starker holds the title of Distinguished Professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, where his classes have attracted talented string players from around the world.
TJ: Is there such a thing as a student with no talent for an instrument?
JS: I wouldn’t say that a person has no talent, I would rather say that talent varies. Some people have more talent in teaching, some more in an aural sense, and some more in playing. There are obviously those who do not have the talent to warrant pursuing a professional career in music.
TJ: Is there such a thing as a person with no sense of rhythm?
JS: Sense of rhythm can be developed, but not just “sense of rhythm.” There is “rhythmic sense” as well, or sense of pulse. Some people have the ability to distinguish between note values and note lengths, which is what I think of as sense of rhythm. Others have no sense of pulse, the constant pulse feeling in their body. Fortunately, both of these can be developed, to a degree.
One of the techniques I use with students who lack a sense of pulse is to have them slightly sway their body back and forth with the pulse of the music. Sometimes I even have them slightly lift their feet, one at a time as they sway, as if dancing while sitting in the chair. When the students do this, they are using their body’s natural sense of balance and pendulum motion to feel the pulse.
TJ: How long should a student stay with one teacher? Is there such a thing as staying too long with the same teacher?
JS: At a certain a stage of the game, yes. But that’s highly individual because it depends at what age you are talking about. I don’t like it when students stay with me very long. My students generally come to me after having had a full formal education. Occasionally a student will come to me at the age of 18 and will stay for four years. But if a student stays this long, I’ll usually tell him or her to go someplace else to get a broader and more varied experience.
Which teacher you study with is only part of a good education, however. I consider it to be very important to study at an institution that has other great teachers, though not necessarily of the same instrument. If you study at a good school, like Indiana University, then I would encourage you to stay longer. Then, while studying with me, you could also listen and learn from great musicians like Franco Gulli, Menahem Pressler, and Gyorgy Sebok.
TJ: There are some teachers who teach cello and remain distant from their students as people, and then there are other teachers who become more personally involved with their students. Which approach is closer to your teaching style?
JS: I’ve never had a student about whom I didn’t care personally. However, I do not subscribe to the Great Man Syndrome of having coffee klatches and parties with students, where I must listen to them tell me how grateful they are that I’m their teacher. I consider myself to be a rather strong individual and I don’t want to influence them too much. I don’t need, nor do I want, their adulation.
As I think over the last 50 years or so, there are very few students of mine who have not stayed in touch, and who do not express gratitude for what they’ve learned. I am proud that they are all extremely different in their approach to music, except for some fundamental principles that I taught them. My goal is to teach them to think and to consider the many possibilities of how to play something. Every individual has different basic equipment and basic ideas about how music should be played, so the net effect is that they are all doing different things; they are concertizing artists, chamber musicians, members of orchestras, teachers, and so on. The main thing is that I have tried to prepare them for any situation, no matter what they choose to do.
TJ: Should students listen to recordings when studying a piece?
JS: If a student is studying a new piece, there is no other way except for a concert to become familiar with it, since he or she probably hasn’t learned how to read scores yet. Then, on occasion, it’s a very good idea to get some familiarity with the work by listening to a recording.
TJ: Can musicality be taught?
JS: That is a very wide ranging subject. Some students are born with an innate musicianship while others must develop it. You can only hope that you teach students to not learn a Beethoven Cello Sonata by only studying the sonata itself. It is important to become familiar with Beethoven’s other works, like his piano sonatas, violin sonatas, and string quartets.
TJ: What are some typical problems of your students?
JS: The major problem is that many students are taught to learn through imitation instead of by thinking for themselves. Teachers tell them, “Do it this way, not that way,” and often do not discuss with their students why something is more difficult than something else, what the problems are, and what the possible solutions are. Then they come to me and I must fight against their previous education, because they have learned bad habits. Some of them learn how to jump without walking, instead of learning to walk and then eventually jump.
TJ: It’s more and more difficult to find a job as a musician, and yet the music schools continue to turn out new musicians. Does it seem right to you that music schools continue to produce musicians when the jobs aren’t there?
JS: I’ve been thinking about this for the past 20 years. What has happened is that the supply has increased immensely, not just quantitatively but qualitatively, while the demand has not. The economic reality is that schools get allocations of funds based on the number of students they have. So they must accept students for their own survival.
The market sort of creates its own rules. I remember years ago when there weren’t enough wind players. Sometimes the second oboe made more money than the concertmaster! There was another time when there weren’t enough flute players, so suddenly the flute became popular.
When I first came to the United States, there were very few cellists auditioning, so it was easier to find a job as a cellist. Soon after, the cello went through one of its most dramatic improvements in its practice. Around the same time it was discovered that one can earn a decent living as a professional musician. The cello then became a popular instrument, and there were thousands and thousands of kids studying it. Eventually the cello market became saturated, and it was discovered that there weren’t enough violists, so students switched to the viola. Maybe bass will be the next one. It’s a never-ending cycle.
TJ: I imagine that you’ve played the Dvorak Concerto hundreds of times.
JS: Not that many times. I differ from some of my distinguished colleagues because I’ve made a rule that I will not to make a living with Dvorak, though somebody once gave me a sign for my indoor pool that says “The Pool That Kodaly Built.”
TJ: Are you still able to summon emotions for pieces that you have played repeatedly, or does it get boring after awhile?
JS: When I go on tour with an orchestra and play Dvorak every other day, it takes a little more energy, effort, and concentration. To prevent myself from falling into a rut, I will vary expressions, phrasing, and dynamics. That’s called “professionalism” in my book.
TJ: Do you like to perform?
JS: I like to perform except that I don’t wish to play 110 concerts a year, which I did for many, many years. I play less concerts, and it’s just as satisfying. The good thing about playing consistently is that it becomes easier to go on stage. But sometimes, after not playing in public for months, my stomach will be a little more nervous the first evening back.
TJ: You experience stage fright after all these years?
JS: One is only doomed as a performing artist if one continues to be nervous AFTER going on stage.
TJ: What are you thinking when you perform? Are you telling a story, or are you thinking something like, ‘I need to make a crescendo here,’ or ‘I don’t want to miss this shift.’
JS: It depends upon whether it’s a piece that has been ingrained in every cell of my body or not. I’m constantly making choices, like whether to build to a climax or to make an anti-climax. I’m also listening to what the orchestra does. If the orchestra and the conductor are good, then I’m playing games with the orchestra and trying to pick up on what the conductor’s ideas are. This is what makes playing the cello a fascinating lifelong enterprise, discovering the differences between pianists, orchestras, and conductors. I don’t view the role of a soloist as a one-man enterprise.
TJ: So when you’re playing a concerto, you see it as more as chamber music.
JS: With the exception of the Haydn concerti, Boccherini concerti, and the like, the orchestra, especially in the later concerti, is just as important and sometimes more important than the cello. The soloist is just a protagonist. Sitting at the front does not mean that every note you play is that important.
TJ: Do you notice the audience when you play?
JS: While I’m on stage, I’m not the type of artist who is dramatically concerned about what the audience thinks. I am not interested in selling myself, I am selling the piece.
TJ: Do you think that music making is meant to be a sharing of our humanity and our inner selves with the audience? Pardon my vague terms.
JS: There are various ways of addressing this question. One is that, when people go to a concert, they are supposed to be taken away from their everyday existence. Therefore, it’s your duty to create beauty, in whichever way you consider it, and to give them a momentary detachment from their everyday lives. My goal is to convey a true masterpiece in whatever I play.
One can put on a show any time. I played in the Metropolitan Opera for a long time, so I know all the tricks. I know how to make the audience cheer and yell and do all kinds of things. But I don’t do it because I don’t think it’s my job. I admire some of my colleagues who do this, but that’s not my life.
TJ: You don’t agree with Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg’s statement that music is “show biz?”
JS: I agree that it is show biz up to a point. But I worry that some lack the education to distinguish between show business and art.
TJ: You don’t feel that showing your emotions will somehow add a dimension to the piece?
JS: No, I hope that would already be in the piece. I’m not an actor. I am a musician and am more interested in the art of music. I allow the piece and the composer to set the emotional tone of the experience, whether it’s Beethoven, Brahms, or Tchaikovsky. My primary obligation is to do the maximum that I can with a given work. To put it crudely, I don’t want to be one of those musicians who appears to be making love to himself on stage. My approach must work for the audience or I would not have been engaged in thousands of concerts throughout my life.
TJ: Who are some musicians you admire?
JS: Fritz Reiner, Jascha Heifetz, Maria Callas, and Joseph Szigeti are high on my list. These are people who felt the responsibility to work hard and honestly every time they went out on stage.
TJ: Heifetz was not known for emoting.
JS: Emoting and emotions are very different things. Without emotions you’re not a musician, or a human being. But emoting is show business.
TJ: What do you think of Jacqueline duPré? She was known for her passionate performances?
JS: She was an incredibly gifted cellist and a beautiful artist, but I believe she accelerated her own destruction because she expended so much energy in her performances. I publicly stated long before she got sick that a human being’s body cannot take what she did to it. I worry that young people will try to emulate this external aspect of her playing, instead of striving for her deep musicianship. I grieve for her because she was a valuable human being and a great musician.
TJ: What do you think of Leonard Rose’s playing?
JS: He was a superb cellist and a wonderful artist, though he sometimes seemed more interested in the competitive aspects of music. Still he was one of the most important figures in cello playing.
TJ: At the National Cello Congress, I asked you how one plays with emotional intensity, while also playing without tension? Do you have any further thoughts on this issue?
JS: “Without tension” is the wrong expression. You are not playing without tension, you are playing with a distributed tension. If you tense up your forearm, you will have cramps. The tension is supposed to flow through the body easily. You don’t want to let it build up anywhere. You have to search for the source of the excessive tension so that you can adjust what you are doing to dissipate it.
I think I answered you at the time with a quote from my friend Gyorgy Sebok, “Create excitement. Don’t get excited.”
TJ: What’s wrong with getting excited?
JS: If you get excited, you lose control.
TJ: What do you think about the Authentic movement?
JS: “Authentic” is a vague word. “Authenticity” represents an attempt to learn the musical language of a composer and to try to apply it in performance. Music is not stagnant, nor should it be. Music is ever changing because of the conditions surrounding the music and its performers. We live in a different world and play different instruments than in Beethoven’s time, so we cannot expect to play his music the way it was done in his day. You may play it from Beethoven’s piano or play it with tuned down instruments, but your “authenticity” is still highly questionable.
TJ: I assume that it is very important to you to be faithful to the composer.
JS: It’s not as simple as being faithful to the composer. It’s an assumed faithfulness. Nobody knows how faithful we are. We see what a troublesome concept this is in performances by 20th century composers of their own music. Bartok didn’t follow his own tempo markings and didn’t adhere to his written repeats. Why would other composers of past centuries be any different? I question anybody who claims to be playing authentically or to being faithful to the composer.
I like to think that I’m relatively “authentic” when I play Kodaly’s cello works because I knew the composer, he listened to my performances, and we talked about them and so on. But I still changed things. Once I asked him about a certain questionable note in the Solo Sonata, whether it is G-sharp or G-natural. He thought and said, “Yes.”
TJ: You have recorded the Bach Cello Suites five times. Why so many?
JS: Each time I changed record companies, I was asked to record them.
TJ: I imagine your approach in the Suites has evolved over the years.
JS: Definitely. My latest recording, which should be released in the United States soon, contains more emotional elements, since I was less concerned about trying to obtain technical perfection. Years ago I was more interested in playing technically as close to perfection as possible. On later recordings, I strove for balance and construction. My latest recording adds an emotional element.
TJ: You once said in an interview on Bach, “The use of repeats is determined by balance and content, not blind observances.” What did you mean by that?
JS: I meant that in some of the Bach movements, the first section is 16 bars and the second one is 32 bars, so I find that the 16 bars should be repeated while the 32 bars should not. I think it was sort of a mechanical gesture on the part of the composer to put in the repeat marks. Sometimes I choose not to repeat the second half because it’s too long. In my fifth recording of the Bach Suites I made all the repeats.
JS: Just simply to have it on the record that it’s not a question of me getting tired or something.
I made similar types of decisions when recording the Kodaly. When I last recorded it, I played it in its entirety, though, when I performed it, I always left out the arpeggio variations, since I feel that they are the weak part of the piece. In the very first recording of the Kodaly, I made two cuts to fit it on the ’78 recording because it wouldn’t fit otherwise. So sometimes there are practical reasons too.
Sometimes I will be performing a piece in which I don’t normally make any repeats. But, if I find that I didn’t get what I wanted, I will repeat it.
TJ: In your Bach Suite edition, I noticed in the opening measure of the E-flat Suite Prelude that you don’t take the “Casals” fingering, 1-4-1-4. Why not?
JS: I chose a different fingering because it is much more difficult for the fourth finger to be vibrated in the same way as the second finger. My latest recording deviates from my edition, because I have since discovered that the E flat Suite’s major problem is that the E flat tonality does not activate enough overtones in the cello. So now I use harmonics quite frequently. The purpose of my edition was not to say that my way is the only way to play Bach. My edition only indicated how I played the Suites at a point in my life.
TJ: I bought your latest recording of the Dvorak Concerto with Leonard Slatkin. I noticed that you use a narrower vibrato than other cellists. Do you not like a wide vibrato?
JS: I don’t like a wide vibrato because it sounds out of tune. The vibrato can be so wide that one hears the adjacent notes in addition to the primary note. A wider vibrato gives the impression of being louder, but one’s sound does not go any further, it only goes wider, and distributes across a wider section of the audience. My sound goes straight back, so some people in the hall probably don’t hear me as well. That’s why some say I have a small and pure sound.
TJ: I also noticed in the A-flat minor section of the first movement that you use a narrow vibrato, and yet the score says “Molto Espressivo e. Sostenuto.”
JS: “Espressivo” doesn’t mean that you have to cry your heart out.
TJ: What does it mean to you?
JS: Expressive, but from a distance. There are many shades of emotion within a given term. Take “love” for instance. “Love” has different connotations depending on whether you are talking about being madly in love, remembering how you felt when you were in love, or feeling your love for a child, a parent, or grandchildren. They are all different types of love.
TJ: I also noticed that whenever the score says “Molto Appassionato,” you tend to play with a fast bow and with your narrow vibrato, sounding almost like an “authentic” player.
JS: Everybody knows that “Molto Appassionato” means crying or sobbing. Again, how one expresses this is debatable. There are some people who cry such that their whole body shakes, while some people cry crocodile tears. I cry in my own way.
TJ: You mentioned at the Cello Congress that you have never been on a jury in a competition. Why not?
JS: Several reasons. I find that the competition system is flawed. As far as I’m concerned, the competition system should be set up such that the preliminary rounds are simply for judging whether a person controls instrumental and musical aspects well. The only ones who should reach the final rounds are those that unquestionably play their instruments at the highest possible level and are unquestionably solid and learned musicians. Then and only then should the element of personality come into play, whether they are doing something different and whether they have something to say.
Competitions clearly don’t operate this way because people are winning who are not at the highest level instrumentally, but who advanced through the competition because of their personality. I admire many of my colleagues, but I’m not about to get into arguments about the rules of a competition when lives of young people are affected.
TJ: Is there such thing as a wrong interpretation?
JS: When somebody finds the “right” interpretation it coincides with your views. That’s what makes this whole issue too academic. We can always explain afterwards why we consider something right or wrong. But, invariably, when you’re in an argument, whoever agrees with you is the smart one in your view. Many years ago, I wrote a story that was called “Mozart Meter,” which discussed whether there is a way of measuring what’s right and what’s wrong in music. The rightness has a wide range, since within that range, you can have all kinds of interpretations and still be right. But once you start playing out of tune, playing incorrect rhythms, or making rubatos which have absolutely no structural sense, then it’s wrong.
TJ: Do we have enough recordings now? For instance, how many recordings do we need of the Dvorak Concerto?
JS: I read in the New York Times recently that the classical recording industry is on a downslide because everybody records in their basement and produces their own CD. It’s bordering on the ridiculous. But the same thing happened when LP’s first came out. It’s a market issue, so the sheer quantity has nothing to do with artistic value. I recently read that record companies have dropped contracts with the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra because the record companies do not want to record anymore. It’s much less expensive to produce a CD of old recordings.
At my age, I’m not about to concern myself with what’s happening because CDs are just another gadget. CDs will not be the last device invented to store musical performances. I’m hesitant to pass judgment on the current situation because I have lived through all these changes. I see this as just another phase.
TJ: Do you feel that musical performances have become too homogenized, lacking in distinct personalities?
JS: I can only answer as I have many, many times. One of the worst statements on the subject came out of the mouth of one of the most admired pianists of all time, Artur Rubinstein, who lamented, “What happened to yesteryear’s greats?”— the Rachmaninoffs, etc. Today there are thousands and thousands of pianists who play fast, accurate, and loud, but “what happened to the greats?”
The fact is that the numerical increase in the population of musicians has produced an incredibly high standard, which means that today we have thousands of cellists who basically play the instrument better than the majority of cellists who played 50 years ago. But this doesn’t mean that they are all great. Listening to young people who graduate from the conservatories and the universities, we still wonder why they aren’t as great as Casals, just as we have for decades. There are still those handful of greats today just as there were in the past, except that the rest of them, the thousands, are incredibly high in standard. I rejoice in them because that’s the reason why the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, as well as the thousands of civic and community orchestras, can produce quality performances.
I think we are living in a golden era of cello playing, and, as I said at the outset of the Cello Congress, there have never been so many fabulously gifted musicians—cellists who are instrumentally and musically well-trained. But, out of this multitude, the same small number of great performers will emerge. So rest in peace, Mr. Rubinstein.
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