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János Starker

Legendary cellist and teacher János Starker, principal cello (1953–1958) and frequent soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, died on April 28, 2013, in Bloomington, Indiana. He was 88.

János Starker was born in Budapest, Hungary to Russian émigré parents. He began cello studies at age six, taught his first lesson at age eight, and gave his first public performance at age ten. He studied at the Franz Liszt Royal Academy, where faculty included Béla Bartók, Zoltan Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi, and Leo Weiner. It was also at the Liszt Academy where he met his lifelong friend and future CSO concertmaster, Victor Aitay.

After imprisonment in a internment camp (on Csepel Island, in the Danube next to Budapest) during World War II, Starker became principal cello of the Budapest Opera and Philharmonic orchestras. With Aitay, he left Hungary in 1946 for Vienna, performing as soloist and in Aitay’s string quartet. Starker immigrated to the United States in 1948 and joined the Dallas Symphony Orchestra as principal cello at the invitation of Antal Doráti. The next year, he occupied the same position in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera under the direction of fellow Hungarian Fritz Reiner. With Reiner, Starker came to Chicago and became principal cello of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1953. He became an American citizen in 1954.

The maestro joined the newest members of the Orchestra for an informal photo in 1953. The new musicians are (left to right): Nathan Snader, violin; Juan Cuneo, violin; Joseph Golan, violin; Alan Fuchs, horn; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; Ray Still, oboe; and János Starker, cello.

Fritz Reiner and the newest members of the Orchestra in 1953: Nathan Snader, violin; Juan Cuneo, violin; Joseph Golan, violin; Alan Fuchs, horn; Sheppard Lehnhoff, viola; Ray Still, oboe; and Starker.

In 1958, Starker left Chicago and resumed his career as an international soloist and for the next five decades, he appeared in recitals and as soloist with the world’s leading orchestras. In addition to performing all the major works from the cello repertoire, he performed concertos written for him by David Baker, Doráti, Bernhard Heiden, Jean Martinon, Miklós Rózsa, Robert Starer, and Chou Wen-chung. Starker was the subject of countless news articles, magazine profiles, and television documentaries, and his performances have been broadcast on radio and television around the world.

Starker’s discography includes more than 270 recordings of over 180 pieces, many of which have become landmark records of cello literature. He made an unprecedented five recordings of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello; the final album received the 1997 Grammy Award for best instrumental soloist performance (without orchestra). Starker’s first recording of Kodály’s Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello received France’s Grand prix du disque in 1948.

Starker was equally renowned as a teacher. He joined the faculty of Indiana University in 1958 and was named a distinguished professor in 1962. He taught at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada for seventeen years and at the Hochschule für Musik in Essen, Germany for five years, and many of his students (including the CSO’s own Brant Taylor) have won prestigious awards and occupy prominent positions in chamber ensembles and major orchestras. Starker published and recorded a series of studies entitled An Organized Method of String Playing which remains an important piece of cello instruction. He published or edited numerous musical scores and articles, and developed the Starker Bridge designed to enhance the acoustics of stringed instruments. His autobiography, The World of Music According to Starker, was published by Indiana University Press in 2004.

Starker received five honorary degrees and numerous awards including the Kodály Commemorative Medallion from the Government of Hungary in 1983 and the Chevalier de l’Order des Arts et des Lettres from the French Republic in 1997. He played the Lord Aylesford Stradivarius cello between 1950 and 1964, and he also played a 1705 Matteo Goffriller cello throughout his career.

For the United States premiere of Martinon’s Cello Concerto on July 31, 1965, former principal cello János Starker returned as soloist at the Ravinia Festival. Shown here during a rehearsal are the composer, soloist, and conductor, Ravinia music director Seiji Ozawa.

Starker was soloist in the United States premiere of Martinon’s Cello Concerto at the Ravinia Festival on July 31, 1965. Seiji Ozawa, the Festival’s music director, conducted.

A complete list of János Starker’s solo appearances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are below (subscription concerts at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted):

November 19 and 20, 1953
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Fritz Reiner, conductor

November 24, 1953
SCHUBERT/Cassadó Cello Concerto in A Minor
Fritz Reiner, conductor

February 4 and 5, 1954
BEETHOVEN Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56
Bruno Walter, conductor
George Schick, piano
John Weicher, violin

January 6 and 7, 1955
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Bruno Walter, conductor
John Weicher, violin

April 14 and 15, 1955
PROKOFIEV Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 58
Fritz Reiner, conductor

October 6, 7, and 11, 1955
STRAUSS Don Quixote, Op. 35
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin
Milton Preves, viola

January 5 and 6, 1956
SCHUMANN Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129
Fritz Reiner, conductor

February 28, March 1, and 12, 1957
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin

March 14 and 15, 1957
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
Fritz Reiner, conductor

June 28, 1957 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Igor Markevitch, conductor

December 5 and 6, 1957
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Fritz Reiner, conductor

March 20, 21, and 25, 1958
STRAUSS Don Quixote, Op. 35
Fritz Reiner, conductor
John Weicher, violin
Milton Preves, viola

October 19 and 20, 1961
PROKOFIEV Symphony-Concerto for Cello, Op. 125
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

July 23, 1963 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt, conductor

July 30, 1963 (Ravinia Festival)
WALTON Cello Concerto
Sir William Walton, conductor

December 3 and 4, 1964
HAYDN Cello Concerto in C Major
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 31, 1965 (Ravinia Festival)
MARTINON Cello Concerto, Op. 52
Seiji Ozawa, conductor

July 29, 1967 (Ravinia Festival)
LALO Cello Concerto in D Minor
Jean Martinon, conductor

May 9 and 10, 1968
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Jean Martinon, conductor

July 18, 1970 (Ravinia Festival)
DVOŘÁK Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104
István Kertész, conductor

November 4 and 5, 1971
RÓZSA Cello Concerto, Op. 32
Georg Solti, conductor

July 15, 1972 (Ravinia Festival)
HAYDN Cello Concerto in C Major
István Kertész, conductor

July 21, 1973 (Ravinia Festival)
BEETHOVEN Triple Concerto in C Major, Op. 56
BRAHMS Double Concerto in A Minor, Op. 102
Sergiu Comissiona, conductor
Rudolf Buchbinder, piano
Franco Gulli, violin

July 27, 1974 (Ravinia Festival)
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33
Kazimierz Kord, conductor

August 2, 1975 (Ravinia Festival)
SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major, Op. 107
Lawrence Foster, conductor

October 7, 8, and 9, 1976
SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 33
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

November 22, 24, and 25, 1978
BOCCHERINI Cello Concerto B-flat Major
Sir Georg Solti, conductor

November 25, 27, and 28, 1987
HINDEMITH Cello Concerto
Erich Leinsdorf, conductor

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“In the summer of 1936, I visted the Salzburg Festival for the first time and managed to attend, unofficially, a few rehearsals and performances. Bruno Walter and several other famous musicians were taking part, but the main attraction was [Arturo] Toscanini, who was conducting Fidelio, Falstaff, Die Meistersinger, and some orchestral concerts. The experience was exhilarating—a new world of high quality opened up for me—and the following summer I made up my mind to go back. At my insistent request, the director of the Budapest Opera gave me a letter of recommendation, so that I might get into some rehearsals. I arrived in Salzburg one evening in July 1937, and the next morning I went to the Festspielhaus to present my letter to Baron [Heinrich von] Puthon, a retired Austrian general who was the festival’s general manager. After a long wait, I was introduced to the baron, who read the letter and asked me, ‘Can you play The Magic Flute?’”

Solti replied, “yes,” and was invited to attend the afternoon stage rehearsal. When he arrived in the pit, he sat at the piano, noticed that the singers were onstage and ready, and started playing, giving cues with one hand.

“Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a little man enter from the right side of the stage. My heart stopped. It was Toscanini. . . . Without stopping me, he began to conduct—very small, simple, but clear indications of tempo and dynamics. I followed him as if my life depended on it. After an hour or so, he called a break, turned to me, and said softly, ‘Bene.’ I do not think any complment I have ever received has given me as much joy as that one from Toscanini.”

At Toscanini’s insistence, Solti became one of his assistants and also played glockenspiel for the Magic Flute performances. At the end of the summer, Solti was engaged as a répétiteur for the following season, to assist Toscanini and coach four operas. However, Toscanini would never return to Austria.

“News of my having worked with Toscanini—and of my having been reengaged by him—was picked up by the Budapest press, and I began to be noticed as a musician. I pestered the Budapest Opera’s administrators to let me conduct something, and I imagine they realized that if they didn’t give me a chance, I would probably try to go elsewhere. Finally, a performance was arranged for me: The Marriage of Figaro, on March 11, 1938. So far as I know, it was the first time that an unconverted Jew conducted a complete opera in that house since Hungary had become an independent country.

“. . . walking into the orchestra pit to conduct an opera for the first time in my life was a frightening experience, especially as I had not been allowed a single rehearsal. But after the overture, I felt absolutely comfortable and at home. . . . At the beginning of the third act [one of the singers] made all sorts of mistakes, singing incoherently, and seemed to have completely lost his confidence. . . . When I went backstage after the performance had ended, I learned what had happened. Just as he had been about to go on stage, [he] had been handed a copy of an extra edition of an evening newspaper and had learned that German troops were crossing the border into Austria and marching toward Vienna; the historical event that is now referred to as the Anschluss . . . As it turned out, my conducting debut at the Budapest Opera was also my last performance of an opera there. I was only twenty-five years old, but I felt that all my hope had been dashed. That evening left a permanent scar on my heart.”

Text excerpted from Memoirs by Sir Georg Solti.

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Theodore Thomas

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