It is a singular experience to encounter a human being as authentically great as Janos Starker. A "force of nature" is one way to describe him. Acolytes and critics alike could agree with the persistent "fire and ice" moniker. (It tickled his magnificent sense of humor.) Simply to be in the presence of Starker (as he was known around the world) was an exhilarating experience precious to the millions who experience his music-making first hand, countless more who genuinely did know him from his astonishing array of recordings, and to generations of grateful, often adoring students.
My husband and I were blessed with one of his greatest gifts -- Janos' genius for friendship.
His influence as an international superstar cellist is legendary, whether as a supremely gifted solo artist, in partnership with a pianist (he refused to call them "accompanists") or in front of a symphony. In addition to searingly beautiful memories for concert-goers, his influence is codified forever in his extraordinary range of recordings (over 165 of them.) Yet his humility (absolutely genuine) shone through in reminding us, again and again, that genius resides with the composer while he, a performer, was a "recreative artist." So you can imagine how elated he must have been that his grandson, J.P. Saxe, has turned out to be an exceptional "creative" artist with enormous promise as a singer-songwriter.
His was not a false modesty. Starker was keenly aware of his extraordinary achievements. He took deep satisfaction with having achieved a stature which put him among a handful of the world's greatest musicians, those he considered "the dehors class" -- outside of categorization, instantly recognizable and absolutely identifiable to the listener anywhere in the world.
Janos Starker will be saluted far into the future and across the world for the boundless beauty he created as a preeminent musician of the twentieth century. So how would a vigilant friend often out of the country a lot more than in it as he toured the world bestow his blessing when we were contemplating our program series ("...Conversations with People at the Leading Edge") in 1995? Not only did he agree to be one of our very first guests (along with the ever-gracious Bill McGlaughlin). Janos blessed us with our theme music -- a selection from one of his earliest, breathtaking recordings of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello (the full set of which he famously recorded five times, the last in 1997 winning the Grammy for "Best Recording by a Soloist without Accompaniment".)
When this wonderful friend breathed his last this morning, I could not get the powerful symmetry of "expired" and "inspired" out of my head. In the end, with all the outward achievements and inward accomplishments, Janos Starker -- child prodigy, singular virtuoso, author and inventor (the "Starker bridge" is but one example) -- might best be summed up in his own sense of what really mattered. As he breathed his last, he was reportedly at peace, as well he should have been having fulfilled his lifetime commitment: to honor those who did not survive the ravages of the Second World War. (His two older brothers, both gifted violinists, died at the hands of the Nazis, who murdered much of Eastern Europe's musical world.)
It's no accident that it was Starker and his cello who brought Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodály, Starker's fellow countryman, to the world stage in a meaningful way (earning Starker France's 1948 Grande prix du disque for playing music hitherto considered unplayable). Or that Janos repeatedly made places in his world for others seeking freedom from tyranny, in whatever guise it appeared.
Yes, Starker was renowned the world over for his supreme command of classical music, for being the ultimate, perhaps finest cello teacher in the world, and for his absolute mastery of the entire cello repertoire. Yes, Starker was celebrated in famous concert hall around the world. However he was perhaps even better appreciated in the countless lesser or unknown halls which others of his stature would never grace. Think Mozambique. Or the "seminars" -- he refused to call them "master classes" as he loathed pretentiousness -- where he insisted everyone learned from the experience.
In honoring Starker's passage, there are legions who will speak publicly and privately to his absolute commitment to beauty and its creation, to his intensity, to the demands he placed on himself, on those with whom he performed, and especially on his students for whom he felt the keenest possible responsibility to "open doors" as he put it.
But I wonder if even Starker's most ardent admirers know that in choosing aspiring cellists who would have the unparalleled gift of his masterful teaching, he picked not "the best" (confident, he said, that the truly gifted would find their way) even though it was they who could further burnish his well deserved and outsized reputation. No, he chose those who were gifted enough and whom he felt sure he could help the most.
He was as demanding of his students as he was of himself, yet his tenderness toward them was legendary. We experienced both when, during one terrible week, we had three deaths in our immediate family. Given his family history, his note to us rang especially true. It said simply, "Grin and bear it." A remarkable insight into how best to endure so that, when one has created the opportunity, one can prevail.
An intense forty-year friendship is as impossible to summarize here as Maestro Starker's lifetime of adventure and accomplishment could be condensed into the two magnificent days we spent recording our final five hour conversation with Professor Starker in 2011. (Yes, it will be available on the internet, all in due course.) So we will hold in our hearts the large and the small:
After a day listening intently to the musical masters known for their "Muscle Shoals Sound", Janos reciprocated his appreciation of their talent by ripping into his Kodály at its wildest. Suffice it to say, these guys who had worked with Paul Simon, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, The Staple Singer, Bob Dylan et al., sat there slack-jawed. Then the work began -- exploring how together we might bring Richard Strauss' Don Quixote to life on television, decades before music videos had even been imagined or cross-discipline collaborations became a vogue.
It is telling how thoroughly Starker prized a vibrant sense of humor, and his was as pungent as the Hungarian sausage of which he could never find enough. We shall always admire that when others in the music world famously failed to share his commitment to a good laugh, it was their loss, not his.
What a joy to be part of his "Musicales" -- an intimate group gathered in a lovely home, Janos and his cello settling in, Scotch and cigarettes readily at hand. These were lively exchanges of music, questions and laughter, stories and quips adding up to a charmed window into his wider (and smaller) musical universe. Precious memories for the favored few.
And we'll treasure the night we three witnessed a world famous performer outrageously violating Starker's central doctrine for a performer -- a professional musician ALWAYS performs to the very best of his ability, no matter what -- "dogging it" in performance. At the sight of Janos in the Green Room afterward, the guy paled, capable only of a wheedling stammer, "If I'd known you were in the house, I would have played better... ."
How can we forget Janos' pleasure in sharing the exquisite Scotch with which his good friend Yo-Yo Ma had gifted him?
Or the memorable Starker New Year's Eve party, ringing in the new with a boisterous kiss from the late great Josef Gingold as a three hour impromptu "jam session" began.
Or Janos' delight when we arranged for him to receive the "Key to the City" when he helped us celebrate the opening of our television studio in 1986. Or how kindly Starker was then to invite our awe-struck engineer to call him "Uncle Janos."
Or his deep satisfaction as Barack Obama emerged on the world's scene, in contrast to the despair he and fellow Hungarians felt when America elected a General to the presidency in 1952.
Or perhaps most generalizable, Starker's gleeful advise for us when faced with a gatekeeper standing between us and a future we wanted to explore, "Just tell him you're pursuing your dream." Janos was ever so confident that would carry the day!
Now our dearest friend belongs to the ages. This great and good man joins the ancestors, an enduring and true friend with the gift for recognizing possibility and creating beauty, come what may. With the richness of our memories and sad as we are, it would be profoundly ungrateful to grieve. We choose instead to follow his teaching: We shall grin and bear it.