R.I.P. János Starker

János Starker (July 5 1924 - April 28, 2013)
János Starker (July 5 1924 – April 28, 2013)

There’s really nothing I can add to all the litanies, and many more cellists and musicians have had a much closer professional and personal relationship than I ever had the chance.  My closest contact with him was when I was 15 and played the Dvořák Cello Concerto (which was something tied to his early claim to fame) for him in a masterclass while I was attending the IU Summer String Academy in 1987.

I hadn’t realized Starker had made over 160 recordings (sometimes you can actually learn things from wikipedia entries!) and only vaguely remember that he had won a Grammy for one of them which I didn’t mention in my post about playing with Grammy Award winners.

In many ways Starker was probably more influential to me as a musician from afar than directly.  I went through a “non-emotive” stage (and still come back to it occasionally) that “culminated” in my undergrad thesis about the ethics of performance practice.  I still find it fascinating that how we look onstage can profoundly affect how we’re perceived by audiences–even when the audio being heard is exactly the same between different performers or performances!

Seeing how Starker lets the music do the talking can best be seen in the numerous videos of him on youtube–especially those from his 1988 Tokyo recital (just the year after I played for him).  Here’s the first movement of the Kodály Sonata for Solo Cello.

Very little wasted effort in using overt body language and he has a level of technical precision that isn’t marred by exuberant emotive physical gestures!  Usually when I’m having some kind of technical difficulty the first thing I ask myself is “am I overly emoting something?” and “is that getting in the way of my playing?”

As often as not, I am and it is!  Not that there is anything inherently wrong about being emotive in your playing, but as the oft lofted criticism goes–we make a visual show to hide the deficiencies of our musical show.  As Starker would say, “Create excitement. Don’t get excited.” which is almost as old a maxim as you can find in aesthetics (cf. my post, to create or to copy).  Indian Rasa and Arabic Tarab abound in it, after all, and these might point to the roots of some of the most ancient theories and practices of aesthetics as exist.

At the same time, I think we can see the pure joy of making music that Starker had.  Just watching this video shows us that even he couldn’t completely restrain emotive gestures.

I’m just not sure we’re in a world that can just simply enjoy music anymore and I fear that the death of Mr. Starker is symbolic of that.

R.I.P. János Starker (July 5 1924 – April 28, 2013)


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