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Acclaimed cellist Janos Starker plays VCU's Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series. 

Cello Hero

There are musicians whose presence and life can change the way we listen to music. For every instrument and every discipline in the arts there are heroes whom we seldom get to see or hear except through recordings and broadcasts. Janos Starker is such an artist. Esquire magazine has said of him "If he'd been a scientist, he'd have won a Nobel Prize." On Saturday, March 24, Richmonders will have a rare chance to witness this living legend as he performs for Virginia Commonwealth University's Mary Anne Rennolds Chamber Music Series.

Starker is a 60-year veteran of professional music. Born in Hungary in 1924, Starker took up the cello at age 6 and made his first public appearance at 11. During World War II, Starker was detained for a time in a Nazi work camp, before escaping to France in 1946, where he was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of Kodaly's Unaccompanied Suites for Cello. In 1948, Starker was invited to come to the United States to be the principal cellist in the Dallas Symphony with renowned conductor Antal Dorati. For 10 years, Starker laid aside his solo career to play as principal cellist in three orchestras: Dorati's Dallas Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony.

Starker took up his solo career again in 1958 and has never stopped since. " It is a huge responsibility to be blessed — or cursed —with the kind of talent that can do something on a high level," he says. "… I believe that what I've been doing is right, and my job is to do it as long as I can."

Starker has made his home with every major orchestra the world over. Recent seasons have found him performing in Dallas, Washington, D.C., (The National Symphony), New Haven, New York, Quebec, Spokane, Seattle and San Diego. "I have never stopped enjoying performing," says Starker. "Onstage, I think 'Thank God, I'm home.'" He has, however, slowed down in recent years. "Now the performing is becoming more and more limited because I cannot stand the air travel," he says. "For several decades I was performing 100 concerts a year throughout the world, traveling 250 days out of the year. Now I don't teach large classes and instead of playing the hundreds of concerts, I play maybe 30 concerts a year."

Composers have written concerti for him. Starker has recorded for Deutsche Gramophone, Everest, Mercury, EMI, Laurel, London, Louisville, Phillips, Seraphim, Star and BMG. He has been nominated for three Grammy Awards and won one (Best Recording by a Soloist without Accompaniment: J.S. Bach Six Suites for Solo Cello in 1997), is a knight in the Order of Arts and Letters in France, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

There is little he has not done and mastered when it comes to the cello, but, throughout it all, Starker is refreshed through teaching. "After the standing ovation, eventually people sit down," he says. "But teaching moves through generations. … I personally cannot perform without teaching, and I cannot teach without performing."

Oddly, it may be his dedication to teaching that has kept Starker from crossing over from revered artist to popular icon like fellow cellist Yo-Yo Ma has done. "I treasured my privacy," he says, " but as long as artists continue to serve the cause of music, I applaud them. However, my nature doesn't lend itself to that kind of thing."

Starker, instead, is content to focus on the music, and his audience. "The artists duty onstage is to give the audience enough to repay their courtesy in coming to the concert," he says. "To serve the great composers of the past and present, and bring joy to the audience… which is the most constant joy of existence."

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