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Janos Starker discusses his career

BROADCAST: 1965 | DURATION: 00:20:09


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Studs Terkel An exercise or an étude, but depends who plays it, whether it's a joy to listen to, whether it's drudgery to work, and János Starker, one of the world's great cellists, performing here with the Chicago Symphony. I caught Mr. Starker during his two performances here in Chicago. Indeed, called the king of cellists by any number of critics and by audience, too. We think of this album of yours, Mr. Starker, and you've been here so many times in the studio, and in the role the cello playing, the matter of, you wrote these liner notes yourself.

János Starker Yes, I did.

Studs Terkel Little did we know that you're a writer as well as a cellist. That the, when listening, we hear the word "exercise," it immediately brings up the little kids sawing away, and keeping us from sleeping or studying.

János Starker Well, usually people ask me that, how many hours do you practice and what do you practice, and how do you reach efficiency, [on?] the instrument--this record was an attempt to show what a cellist goes through in order to attain certain heights in skill building.

Studs Terkel But isn't there too, Mr. Starker, a certain joy you're implying here, that it need not all be drudgery? Even the exercise itself, the practice itself, doesn't this have a certain air of excitement to it, even though it may seem by the clock?

János Starker Obviously, if the exercising or the practicing is done in the right way, it's not supposed to be as dull as it seems to be. The repetitions itself makes it dull, of course, and makes it necessary. But every little exercise has some musical element in it, and if one is capable of bringing these musical elements, [therefore?] then becomes challenging artistically as well, not just as labor.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking of this particular album of yours, "The Road to Cello Playing", you know, the very thing you're talking about even as discovery, as you're practicing even though you're repeating, there are always new nuances, aren't there, all the time, and this is I suppose what makes for an artist, isn't it?

János Starker But you do realize that these exercises are using one simple motif which appears some during a concerto in a really significant work. And it just bites of this repetitive approach one learns the skill required for the major pieces. So if one thinks in terms of a beat of a sonata when one practices the same exercise, then it becomes much more interesting.

Studs Terkel This raises another point, when as we hear one of your movements from your Bach, your magnificent Bach, when you play something, and this is a cliché question, always something new is discovered even though you may have played a piece many times, a work, say, a Bach work many times.

János Starker Well, one hopes to discover new things, because if one keeps doing the same thing over and over again, stagnation is actually regression in some sense.

Studs Terkel I'm wondering about your students. You teach, I know you hold a chair in music at Bloomington, University of Indiana.

János Starker Yes, I have quite a large class of about 15 or 16 cellists at times, and a large chamber music class also, which counts, sometimes, 75 people in it, and I must say that I'm very pleased to see that all the previously lamented fact that there are not enough cellists in the world is being radically changing right now.

Studs Terkel How come? Has this been the case? Was there, we think of the stringed instrument naturally, the violin, the kid next door practicing César Cui's "Orientale" and driving you crazy.

János Starker Cellists also play the same piece.

Studs Terkel But the cellist, has there been an increase, a resurgence of interest in the --

János Starker Incredible increase. Right now the situation is there are more cellists are actually performing with the major orchestras than violins. There's a huge lack of outstanding violinists and there's almost overproduction of outstanding cellists.

Studs Terkel How would you explain this? Would it be the presence of, say, a Casals in the world and a Starker, for that matter?

János Starker Casals was definitely responsible, most responsible for anyone, historically. And the fact is that most of the performing cellists, the concertizing cellists, are teaching at the same time, while very few of the great violin virtuosos are really seriously teaching. That's partly responsible, partly it's the usual demand and supply situation; there was a huge lack of cello, cellists, and more and more kids started playing the cello. The unfortunate thing is, or fortunate as far as I'm concerned is, that mostly girls are playing the cello.

Studs Terkel How would you explain that?

János Starker Well, first it was that people weren't sure that it can give a decent living if somebody plays the cello, so girls studied in schools with the idea of supplying or supporting the household eventually when they get married. But the fact is right now that in my class of 16, I think I have 12 girls playing the cello, and they are pretty with it, except the miniskirts are posing some problems, by the way.

Studs Terkel That raises an interesting question, doesn't it? An interesting question of decor.

János Starker Well, on concerts it's less of a problem because they do use long skirts, but it does make life a bit difficult in the morning at ten o'clock walking in my studio and seeing all these little fresh youngsters playing the cello with miniskirts, but I try to avoid as much of [unintelligible] as possible.

Studs Terkel Slight distraction there. I could see where, I can see also where the box office could be booming if there were a mini-skirted cello virtuoso.

János Starker Can you visualize the cartoon that I've lately seen that the teacher in the high school says that I can't do anything about the miniskirts, but there's no side-saddle cello playing allowed in my classroom.

Studs Terkel I think Mr. Starker, the audience has gathered before as a man of gentle, quite sharp wit too, we think -- You wrote, you write very well. You know, you have a style of your own that has a certain buoyancy to it, and one of the magazines you wrote about the cellist, the stereotype, you know, version of the cello being an instrument of agony, of soulful music, of the death of someone on soundtracks.

János Starker That was sort of the popular view of the cello due to the fact that usually the cello has been used to illustrate sad happenings on the screen and that remained still up to this day in a great many people's mind as the stereotype cello sound. We're fighting it successfully now.

Studs Terkel You find it in the hands of a virtuoso. [Unintelligible] the cello then has the joy, well of course Bach had joy, too.

János Starker Well, I mean always stated that the cello has as much in some instance it's not more capability than any other string instruments because of its wider range. You can play high sounds and low sounds with equal ease, except that the skill had to be developed and the cello is often repeated, has been late in its development compared to the other instruments, and that was the real core of the problem.

Studs Terkel When was, perhaps you could be just a bit historical, also autobiographical before we hear two movements from one of your Bach works, from one of your any recent Bach albums. You yourself, I know -- Was the cello always when a small boy, was that your first instrument?

János Starker My parents tell me that I used to pluck the violin before, but as far as formal studies are concerned, I started with the cello.

Studs Terkel This was in Budapest.

János Starker Yes. And at the ripe, mature age of six.

Studs Terkel Six. Were there, who were the influences as you went along in your life?

János Starker Well, I had my teacher, whose name is not too well-known in this country, was Schiffer, Professor Schiffer, who was the successor of Popper, was one of the greatest names in cello playing and many other people, especially later on, the greatest influence was Heifetz, I suppose.

Studs Terkel Heifetz?

János Starker Yes.

Studs Terkel Well, that's interesting. How did Heifetz, the violinist, influence you, a cellist?

János Starker By the mere fact that he was so far ahead of the accepted and known standards of violin playing that I thought, why not try to get ahead in cello playing and present the type of music-making and type of instrumental playing on the cello which is in some sense different or ahead of its time.

Studs Terkel Well, you've been, since you mentioned Heifetz, has there been a -- I don't know this, I'm not a music critic, has there been a comparison made between your approach to music and, isn't his a more, isn't he --

János Starker Well, I should say the most pleasing comment that ever been uttered in regard to my playing was when they compare it to, in some sense, to Heifetz's playing.

Studs Terkel Isn't Heifetz, could I ask you, this isn't his -- This doesn't seem to apply to you, at least I as a listener, isn't he a more of a detached, cool perfectionist, or am I wrong about?

János Starker Well, this is exactly the same criticism that is being used against me in many, many instances.

Studs Terkel I don't feel you're that.

János Starker Well, I don't either, but it simply means that my effect on audiences is very times that I'm detached. But that's simply a matter of many people instead of listening to music, they watch music-making, and they see that somebody successfully overcomes technical difficulties. So I recently read in the paper that younger virtuosos these days approach their instrument with such ease that it almost seems glib, and that is in my mind rather the visual aspect of the thing that they are --

Studs Terkel Aren't you raising an interesting point here, Mr. János Starker, our distinguished cellist is our guest, you're raising a very interesting point here, that the control of an instrument is such on the part of so many obviously fine young musicians, that people accustomed to a personality at work, you know, or watching it, you say, are not listening.

János Starker This in some sense in the judgment --

Studs Terkel

János Starker Misjudgment. To separate the music that one aspect of concert playing as such is obviously part of an entertainment medium, that people are there to listen to an evening of music and they want to be entertained as well as their minds may be occupied, that is somebody seemingly conquers all the difficulties and doesn't seem to struggle, this means too, so easy for him that he can't truly be interested in what he's doing. And on the other hand, the truth of the matter is if one's supposed to control the instrument to such an extent that only musical problems would occupy and artistic problems can occupy his mind because he's not busy with the obstacles.

Studs Terkel This is where those exercises that we heard at the very beginning by Sebastian Lee as an exercise, there are a variety of études in this album of yours, "The Road to Cello Playing," and the violin --

János Starker Well, I try to go from the very first steps of cello playing to the very highest steps, which use the entire instrument.

Studs Terkel You and Bach, this can't be separate, either, neither Casals and Bach, Bach and the cello, I suppose, is it was transcribed for the cello from the organ,

János Starker it that it? Well, this particular thing that you are planning, I think, to play is called the Gamba Sonata, "The Gamba Sonatas" is the album, which originally was for viola da gamba, and later on --

Studs Terkel Oh, he wrote for viola da gamba, he wrote for a stringed instrument, then.

János Starker It's not like the solo sonatas, the solo sonatas, most of them were already written for the cello, and some of them for a special instrument for viola pomposa and so on. But the gamba sonatas are actually adaptations from gamba and cembalo too, cello and piano.

Studs Terkel When did the cello, before since you mentioned the viola da gamba, when did the cello come into play? How old an instrument is the cello?

János Starker Well, I think that the instruments that we have in our possession today, the first one comes from the end of the 17th century, and it was a sort of a transitory period when gamba was as well used as the cello, and then more and more the cello took over because of the demands of volume and so on. But the gamba, still it's, and it's used today, so it has never been completely gone out of fashion.

Studs Terkel Before I ask about the cellist as a conductor, why so many, you have a very funny comment about that, the predilection of cellists toward the baton and control. Suppose we hear, what would you choose, the first two movements in the Sonata in D Major, the Bach?

János Starker I think the D Major would be representative.

Studs Terkel Anything you'd care to say about that, about this particular work, that?

János Starker Well, the only thing I should say in line with what we've just -- Have spoken about, the gamba adaptation into cello, should not imply that one attempts to sound like a gamba, should just the opposite. But it's a version on the cello, so cello sounds are produced, not gamba sound.

Studs Terkel This is the adagio and the allegro, the two movements. [pause in recording] János Starker. The two movements from the Bach, it's the D Major Sonata, your colleague, as a colleague rather than accompanist because this so in the sonata, says György Sebok.

János Starker Full partner in all sense of the word.

Studs Terkel Yeah. In the sonata, this is almost always the case, isn't it, there's the fusion of the two, it's not someone backing someone, is it?

János Starker Well, it used to be an old-fashioned error to call the pianist an accompanist. Just lucky it's going out of its use.

Studs Terkel This is from a new Mercury album, "Three Sonatas for Cello and Piano", János Starker and György Sebok, and "New Records", their review were very enthusiastic, part of it, fragment says "Starker is of course a veritable wizard and has told us something that leaves one breathless. György Sebok at the piano shares equal billing and proves to be a splendid musician. The performers are a pair of magicians." And this album there, and a good number of János Starker albums. Of course the most recent is this Mercury and their "Three Bach Sonatas for Cello and Piano", Starker and Sebok, and "The Road to Cello Playing". That's also available. This is not just for students, is it, "The Road to

János Starker Cello Playing", this album? Well, it has been debated. I thought that it's an idea for people who like the sound of the cello, that this way they can enjoy it. And for the student, of course, is something that can be a guide to -- They don't -- Practicing it.

Studs Terkel That label is Virtuoso Records, the traditional études and studies. But I was thinking, before you go back to rest for, this afternoon, you play this afternoon. Where this is a Friday afternoon and last night, Thursday, János Starker performed with the Chicago Symphony as the guest artist in this afternoon's regular concert. We think of you as a writer, as an inventor, too. I notice there's something called, people speak of "a view from the Starker bridge," something you did to the cello and has been called the most what, the most tonal --

János Starker The only [correction is?] It's not just for the cello, the bridge is the same for all the string instruments and this so-called invention of mine is applicable and being applied to all string instruments.

Studs Terkel Could you talk about it, could you describe it?

János Starker The invention is a very simple childish one, namely that I discovered that if I bore holes into the legs of the bridges, it amplifies, pre-amplifies the sound and improves the quality of the instruments on which the bridge is used. Since then, since the discovery, it's the all over the world, and thousands and thousands of instrumentalists are using it, and I would say a few exceptions, everybody is very happy about it.

Studs Terkel I hate to ask you how this came to you, this is fascinating, I notice that a number of the magazines, this is "Time" he refers to it, "If the new bridge lives up to expectations, it would be one of the most significant tonal innovations string instruments in 300 years." I know William Primrose, the violist, is using it, and many. How did it come to you? You say this ant-- This is almost a built-in amplifier without distorting it.

János Starker Well, the idea was that there must be found a way for the instrument, quality can be improved and quantity, and the only problem I had that I didn't want to have any kind of electronic device used to do that, because it's only used in popular music and so on, and with fine Italian instruments this would probably distort the sound, so therefore the logical deduction was that the only place this kind of a sort of a natural gadgetry can be used in the bridge, which transfers the sound from the string into the body of the instrument. And since the last 20 or 30 years we are so much aware of the electronics used and the amplifying, amplfication systems and pre-amplification system, the word pre-amplification came to my mind, and that's what it does, actually, that before the sound hits the amplifying chamber, the body of the instrument, it's already preamplifier through these holes which are conical in shape.

Studs Terkel Well, this, let's stick with this for a minute, this is very, to me this is terribly important. We live in an electronic age, everything is amp-- We can't deny it. The amplified guitar in the field of jazz and rock and roll, even amplified brass instruments, too. You're challenging, not challenging, you found a way without using technology and using something within it --

János Starker Very simple thought that if you want to amplify our own voice, we form a conical-shaped opening with our hands or used before the electronics. What Rudy Vallée used to have.

Studs Terkel The megaphone.

János Starker Megaphone, and that what it actually amounts, in some sense. I had no intention of testing it scientifically. But since then, they had tested it, they have tested it. In my school there is a division of acoustics and without my knowledge the teacher has asked a student of mine to bring in --

Studs Terkel University of Indiana.

János Starker University of Indiana. Asked a cellist to bring an instrument with the Starker bridge on the side and first they measured the overtone vibrations and the overtone appearances on a chart on the regular electronic machine and it shows, conclusively, that it's far wider the appearance of the overtones with the Starker bridge as without it.

Studs Terkel Well, this is to me --

János Starker Of same instruments and the same sound.

Studs Terkel Would this mean, then, if you continue with these experiments, is it possible for your cello to be heard in a large auditorium without the need of a public address system?

János Starker Well, you see, there we have other problems that most people are misunderstanding the results of this experimentation, they think that from now on the cello will be sound like a trumpet that can penetrate anything. No, it won't, it simply means that a larger quantity of sound is available, so therefore it takes less effort to produce the sound, in that moment quality improves. Cheap instruments also obtain quality before they didn't have. So the reason why the cello is not heard everywhere in the hall is because of the nature of the composition and what the composer does, that he writes an orchestra piece with the cello in the forefront. In many instances the cellist, highly played as he may be, seemed to be playing and using his fingers and only a texture is heard, it's not supposed to be a louder tone, it is just that the audience is expected that they pay ticket to hear a famous cellist and they want to hear every note he plays. And plus the fact that on the recording, because of the use of the microphones, they hear everything the cellist plays, but it's not supposed to be the same in the concert hall. It's qualitative improvement and some quantity improvement.

Studs Terkel So there I think, here is man, man the artist, bucking the machine taking over, even though you say the P.A. will still be needed, less of it, so the less electronic device, the more of the artist. the more the original flesh and blood.

János Starker And more of the natural sound of his rare instruments come through.

Studs Terkel So we have János Starker, distinguished cellist, a writer of a great deal of wit, an inventor and teacher, too.

János Starker I just call myself busy, in other words.

Studs Terkel Busy. So we opened, we opened with an exercise, suppose just to remind the audience again of the new Starker/Sebok album available and the number of others -- Is Mercury the label for most of your works?

János Starker The last number of years, about 10 LPs.

Studs Terkel And it's Virtuoso Records for "The Road to Cello Playing", having fun with cello playing, having fun with études, with exercises. We opened with one, can we close with a, you suggested a Paganini étude.

János Starker Yes. But it's a transcription from a violin.

Studs Terkel And with this, this is what, was this one that he himself -- Could -- As this farewell question before you leave for resting. I want to ask you -- Oh, I know what I want! Before we do, I have one more question. The cellist and the conductor. Very often the cellist has become the conductor and you made a very humorous crack here about the poor cellist who's always -- His instrument is not the most popular, it's the easiest if not actual -- Primrose way it's

János Starker

Studs Terkel technically punning here, aren't you? Yes. On William, the Primrose way of conducting. "Though Starker confessed to a drawer stuck with a few slightly used batons, though he has already mounted the podium more than once, his conducting debut took place in Oxford, Ohio in '59. It's certain that the man Roger Dettmer of "The American" crowned "King of the Cellists" is not in a hurry to vacate that throne." Has there been this tendency for cellists to take the podium?

János Starker Well, it's an obvious desire on the part of any musician to challenge the repertory written for symphony orchestras which so much [wider?] than anything else. But it usually comes at the point when a cellist feels there's nothing more to be done or he cannot do anything more with the cello. I don't feel the point has been reached, so I can wait with my conducting career.

Studs Terkel You are conducting, though, is --

János Starker I do conduct on occasions. And I teach conducting and so on, but the moment when I feel that there's nothing to be done with the cello, then I will --

Studs Terkel You have a long way ahead for so marvelous an artist, János Starker, too, with a cello. So we close with a Paganini étude before you rest for your afternoon performance today. János Starker, thank you very much indeed.

János Starker My pleasure.