Revered Cellist Janos Starker Dies at 88

Sunday, April 28, 2013 - 05:00 PM

Janos Starker, the Hungarian-born cellist synonymous with refinement as well as pedagogy, having taught thousands of cellists, died Sunday at his home in Bloomington, IN. He was 88 years old.

Starker’s five-decade performing career yielded more than 150 albums including the major concertos (Dvorak, Schumann, Elgar, Shostakovich and Walton) as well as five versions of the Bach Cello Suites. A 1992 account of the suites for RCA won a Grammy Award.

Starker's stage persona was sometimes said to be unemotional and aloof. Some critics contrasted him with the warmer, more showman-like approach of Mstislav Rostropovich – a comparison he shrugged off. "What I'd like to see is a little more humility and dignity displayed toward our art, and less self-aggrandizement," he said in a colorful People magazine profile in 1980.

Still, Starker occasionally sought to counter his restrained reputation. He once developed a lighthearted program for occasional informal engagements called "A Special Evening with Janos Starker." He would alternate performances with drags on a cigarette, sips of Scotch and a string of anecdotes, including his versions of his celebrated run-ins with Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy.

A child prodigy, Starker began playing cello at age 6. At 11 he entered the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, and at 14, he made his professional debut in the Dvorak Cello Concerto with a student orchestra.

Starker spent three months in a Nazi work camp during World War II. His Jewish tailor father, mother and Janos survived, but his two brothers died. Then in 1946 Starker made his way to Paris, working en route as an electrician and sulfur miner. The next year he made his first recording, a sonata by the Hungarian composer Zolátn Kodály. It won a Grand Prix du Disque and brought him early international fame.

Emigrating to the U.S. in 1948, Starker played for the Dallas Symphony, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chicago Symphony before becoming a full-time concert soloist in 1958. That same year he joined the faculty of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, in what was first a two-year trial basis. He found Bloomington a congenial base and remained there, even as he was giving 100 concerts annually.

As a teacher, Starker was passionate and tough. That endeared him to the noted Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who once invited Starker to speak to his team, according to Indiana Public Media. Starker was also prolific, writing extensively about techniques and publishing his exercises as An Organized Method of String Playing. His autobiography, The World of Music According to Starker, was published in 2004. 

Starker is survived by his second wife, Rae Busch Goldsmith, his daughter, violinist Gwen Starker Preucil, and a daughter from his first marriage, Gabriella Starker-Saxe, plus three grandchildren.

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Comments [9]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ


My cousin MICHAEL BLANKFORT, like JANOS STARKER was Jewish. He wrote both the book and the screenplay for the THE JUGGLER , the 1953 Columbia Pictures film starring KIRK DOUGLAS. It dealt with survivors of the death camps seeking safety in their "ancestral" home, then Palestine. How they were treated is documented in historical paeons of misguided political/military judgments. JANOS STARKER was a survivor of a concentration camp. His
achievements, given his background, were astounding and inspirational.

May. 06 2013 09:31 PM
from France

I met Starker at a reception in his honor in Tokyo back in the 1970s. He literally had a plate of food in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It's amazing that he lived to age 88. He was very popular in Japan and had many Japanese former students. He toured Japan often. A wonderful cellist. Masterful technique and perfect intonation. A clean, blunt-ended sound. Not too much vibrato. He was a heavy smoker but didn't produce a smoky sound. RIP

May. 06 2013 07:16 PM

In the article above, there is mention of 'run-ins' with von Karajan and Ormandy. Does anyone know what those 'run-ins' were or where we can find more about them?

I never heard Mr. Starker in person - I wish I had - his recordings are wonderful. I regret his passing and offer my condolences to his family and friends.

Apr. 30 2013 12:54 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner music drama institute, Boonton, NJ

"Opera Lover from Bayreuth", JANOS STARKER's tragic history in a concentration camp where both brothers died did not deter him from achieving a PHOENIX-like "rising from the dead" monumental career as performer and teacher. The troubles that tear asunder the prospect of REAL echt WAGNERIAN PERFORMANCESare the total lack of singers with squillo, ping, ringing "juicy', not dry secco tone delivery, WAGNERIAN BARKING rather than legato full-throated singing, strained and forced and flat singing, undersized and underpowered singing, WITHOUT impressive carrying power and, as state throaty ugly voice production. JANOS STARKER might have become from his historical background an embittered ,man, but instead he became a sensitive musician, a GLENN GOULD of the cello. R.I.P. JANOS STARKER your achievements herald that truism that even the Dark Ages may evolve into a Renaissance given the personalities and talents that survive ruthlessness.

Apr. 30 2013 12:29 PM
OperaLover from Bayreuth

New Jersey heldentenor:
What do your dinner theater Wagnerian stylings have to do with the death of Janos Starker?

Apr. 30 2013 11:10 AM

Janos Starker was the first cellist who mesmerized me: I grew up with his Dvorak cello concerto. Always - that gorgeous sound, and confident musical line. A true classic style musician. Thank you, Mr. Starker.

Apr. 29 2013 08:51 PM
Manny from Teaneck, NJ

My first exposure to Janos Starker was in a Chicago Symphony telecast of the Brahms Double Concerto, conducted by Bruno Walter, almost 60 years ago. That concert was part of a syndicated series of televised concerts that season; a few of them, conducted by Fritz Reiner with Starker as the orchestra's principal cellist, have been issued on DVD by VAI. I wonder if a recording of the concert with the concerto has survived and, if so, whether there would be interest in issuing it on DVD.

Apr. 29 2013 06:47 PM
Sidney Goldman from Baldwin, NY 11510

You brought to me my memories of this great cellist and this early recorning of him playing Bartok's Seven Rourmanian Dances. sound was very good for me. Thanks as usual.

Apr. 29 2013 11:21 AM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I remember attending a Janos Starker performance at Washington Irving High School as part of a series, Peoples Symphony Concerts, the best kept secret in New York. I thought, he is probably wondering, "What am I doing here?"

Apr. 29 2013 09:26 AM

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