Revered Cellist Janos Starker Dies at 88

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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.