Janos Starker May Be a 'Cold Bastard' in Concert but He's Hot Stuff at Indiana University

For me, it is as much a necessity to perform as it is to eat, drink and make love,” declares Hungarian-born cellist Janos Starker. “But concerts are not satisfying enough if I don’t also teach. Luckily, I have the temperament and stamina for both.”

Lucky, indeed, for everyone. Starker, 56, whose only equal at cello is Mstislav Rostropovich, gives as many as 100 concerts annually at up to $4,000 per performance. Yet he is also one of the few musicians at his rarefied level to carry a full-time teaching load. This will be Starker’s 22nd year at Indiana University, the last 15 with the title of Distinguished Professor of Music.

The cellist concedes that there is a schizophrenic aspect to his dual career: “One day you are onstage with idolatry, cheers and standing ovations. The next you are back teaching a student fingering and how to hold a bow.” But it serves the maestro’s sense of mission. “What I want to do,” he says, “is affect the musical life of the country by producing the finest members of the finest orchestras.” He disdains the Juilliard School’s emphasis on turning out competition winners and is unabashedly proud of his role in making Bloomington a mecca for classical musicians (long before Breaking Away made it the hot campus for cyclists). During the Starker regime enrollment at the IU music school has risen from 700 to 1,700.

In the concert halls, though, the galvanic teacher is elegant, unemotional and aloof. “Some critics say, ‘Oh, he’s a cold bastard onstage,’ ” shrugs the blunt-spoken Starker, adding that Rostropovich’s more showman-like style leads to overwrought performances and missed notes. “What I’d like to see is a little more humility and dignity displayed toward our art, and less self-aggrandizement,” Starker snaps. “Slava is more popular, but I’m the greater cellist.”

In contrast, as a professor Starker is far more modest, solicitous and encouraging. The maestro exclaimed to a prize pupil after a recent rehearsal: “If you play that gorgeous you’ll be a menace in the concert hall—all the girls will fall in love with you and climb onto the stage.” Each semester Starker teaches a master class of up to 20, drawing students from Europe and as far as Australia. He is so accessible and informal that his Saturday session is crowded with outsiders—violinists and guitarists—who enjoy watching and may pick up tips. “There are certain principles that are identical for all instruments,” he explains. “So I can improve their playing.”

Starker himself recalls vowing “to play the best that could be done” as a 9-year-old prodigy in his native Budapest. World War II devastated his family: His Jewish tailor father, mother and Janos survived Nazi concentration camps, 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 modern 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. To ease his severe stage image, he has developed “a little frivolity”—a light-hearted program for occasional informal engagements which he calls “A Special Evening with Janos Starker.” In shirt-sleeves, puffing on a cigarette and sipping Scotch, he intersperses some breathtaking music with a string of anecdotes, including his versions of his celebrated feuds with the likes of Eugene Ormandy and Herbert von Karajan. “Conductors are the most overrated people in music,” proclaims Starker.

Divorced from his Hungarian first wife, he married Chicagoan Rae Busch Goldsmith in 1960 and adopted her daughter, Gwen, now 24 and a gifted violinist. (A daughter by his first marriage, Gabrielle, 30, is a Spanish-language consultant with the Chicago Board of Education.) The Starkers live in a four-bedroom home with a $50,000 indoor pool near the Indiana campus. Wife Rae labors, she says, as “cook, maid, secretary and adviser” to her husband. But she’s rewarded, jokes Janos. “All Hungarians think they’re great lovers. I’m no different.”

Related Articles