In 1945 an American bomb mistakenly hit a Nazi concentration camp. The torrent of shrapnel barely missed a 21-year-old Hungarian-Jewish cellist who had thrown himself in a ditch for protection and the explosion's roar luckily left his hearing unimpaired.
"Since that time I've always felt an obligation," Janos Starker says. "My two brothers were killed and I was lucky enough to survive. I was given a message that I have a duty to carry."
That message meant that Starker, who opens the Shriver Hall Concert Series on Saturday night, had to try to become the most perfect cellist alive and that unlike almost every other star instrumentalist he had to become a full-time teacher. Few can doubt his success. While both Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma may be more famous, Starker was the innovator who brought cello playing to new heights, forging a victory over the instrument's bulk to play swifter, lighter, more free-flowing and more perfectly in tune than anyone had thought possible. And from his chair as Distinguished Professor of Music at Indiana University, Starker regularly attracts the cream of the world's finest young cellists.
"Concerts are not satisfying enough if I don't also teach," Starker likes to say. "After a standing ovation, an audience sits down. Teaching passes through generations."
Starker's also different in another way. He's got what his enemies -- and they included such important musicians as the conductors Herbert von Karajan and Eugene Ormandy -- call one of the biggest mouths in the music business. His fearless tendency to speak his mind has cost him opportunities -- with orchestras whose music directors he has offended and with record executives whose bidding he has declined to do -- that have gone to less deserving musicians.
Here's the reason, for example, that Starker rarely performs with either the New York Philharmonic or the Orchestra de Paris: "The Paris Orchestra is with the New York Philharmonic the world's worst."
And here's the one that keeps cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, the music director of the National Symphony, from conducting for Starker when he visits Washington: "It's with him that the public has fun, not with Bach or Beethoven. Slava [Rostropovich] is more popular, but I'm the greater cellist."
"I happen to be the sort of person who doesn't mince words, therefore my words are often misconstrued," Starker says in a reference to a remark he once made that unintentionally caused a longtime rift between him and the the late cellist Leonard Rose, whom Starker deeply admired as a musician and a man. "Just before he died we finally reconciled. He was one of the most beautiful and elegant cellists who ever lived and it was a damn shame we weren't closer."
Most of Starker's eloquence is reserved for his playing. Some critics call him cold, but one suspects that these are the same critics who called Heifetz cold because of the great violinist's similarly icy demeanor. Starker's playing, like that of Heifetz, is white hot rather than red hot. His Bartok gleams in black and white; his Debussy has the unmediated lucidity of a prose poem; his Brahms is moving without being mushy; and his Bach dances joyously and pointedly. Other cellists -- Ma with angel-in-rapture mugging or Rostropovich with his gorilla-sized hugs and Love-Potion-No. 9 apres concert kisses -- may look like they're having more fun; they do not play the instrument better, however.
Starker himself recalls promising himself "to play the best that could be done" as a 9-year-old prodigy in his native Budapest. His progress was so rapid that he was -- by age 15 -- the principal cellist of the Budapest Opera. He showed precocious promise in another direction too. Noting how easy Starker found it to explain things, his teacher gave him other talented students to teach. One of his first students was a 7-year-old named Mihaly Virizlay, who is now principal cellist of the Baltimore Symphony and whom Starker calls "still my favorite student and one of the greatest cellists alive."
Starker was able to survive the Nazis' initial round-up of "undesirables" in Budapest because he was one of many Jews to whom the Swedish embassy, under its heroic ambassador Raoul Wallenberg, issued fake passports.
"They even arranged to make me principal cellist of the Goteborg Orchestra," Starker says. "Of course, I never got to Goteborg, but I did get to live."
At the war's end, Starker resumed his post at the Budapest Opera and in 1948 won a Grand Prix du Disque for a recording of his countryman Zoltan Kodaly's Sonata for Solo Cello that aficionados regard as one of the dozen or so greatest solo recordings made on any instrument. But he came to the United States to join the Dallas Symphony as principal cellist because he did not feel ready for a soloist's career.
The conductor in Dallas was his old friend, Antal Dorati. But another Hungarian conductor -- Fritz Reiner -- had other ideas and lured him to New York a year later as principal cellist of the Metropolitan Opera and then took him to Chicago in 1953, where the young musician presided over the cello section of the Chicago Symphony in what many people regard as the glory years of that great orchestra.
"I regard Reiner as the greatest conductor who ever lived," Starker says. "He cared nothing for impressing an audience; what made him great was that he wanted to perform things the way he heard them inside his head and that he had the technical means to do exactly that."
In 1958, Starker left the orchestra to teach at Indiana University and to give solo concerts. His career has not been as well documented on records as it deserves. There are his great EMI-Angel recordings from the late 1950s and early 1960s and the equally distinguished Mercury recordings of the later '60s and early '70s. The Mercurys, which include the best recordings ever made of Bach's titanic Suites, have just begun to be reissued on CD.
But the last 20 years of Starker's career have been inadequately represented on records. With the exception of Rostropovich, whose playing has been in decline since he took up conducting, the big record companies have been attracted to younger, fresher-faced cellists, albeit ones with less than lightning-quick speed in their left hands and smaller arsensals of bow strokes in their right.
"It's not that I haven't made a lot of records, it's just that almost all the companies I've recorded for have gone bankrupt," Starker says with a laugh. But the great cellist's luck has begun to change. BMG Classics, the parent company of RCA Victor Red Seal, has given Starker carte blanche to record much of his repertory. Last summer he recorded Strauss' "Don Quixote" in Munich; two weeks ago he recorded concertos by Dvorak and Bartok in St. Louis; and last week he recorded solo pieces with the distinguished pianist Rudolf Firkusny in New York.
"It must have occurred to RCA that I may last longer than I can play the cello well," the 65-year-old Starker says. "But while it's nice to make records -- and believe me I'd trade them all for the opportunity to have recorded 'Don Quixote' with Reiner -- it's not what justifies my existence. What I was put on earth to do, I've been doing."
Starker at Hopkins
Cellist Janos Starker and pianist Menahem Pressler will perform works of Beethoven, Brahms and Eric Heiden at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Shriver Hall on the Johns Hopkins University campus. Tickets are $16. For more information, call 338-7164.