Cellist Janos Starker plays U of C

By Cecil Vyse

The U of C Presents featured internationally renowned cellist Janos Starker last Friday in the last chamber concert of their season. It was quite a success. By the time I arrived, an hour early or so, the concert was long sold out, and a throng of well-dressed, distinguished-looking personages (the majority of whom were indeed basking in their twilight years) could already be seen loitering about the Reynolds Club. As this venerable assemblage drifted to their seats, there was a great deal of excitement, and the crowd was simply starving, yes, ravenous for aesthetic satisfaction. Unfortunately, it did not look as if Starker was as overjoyed to see us as we were him. (Perhaps this humble dilettante is—alas!—not sufficiently acquainted with the habitual facial expressions of the redoubtable cellist to judge with total certainty, but upon several occasions he did appear to glower in our general direction in a most saturnine manner.) But in this respect I do believe Starker was in error, for I was quite delighted in the audience’s performance. Their talents for idle mischief, for expressing their warm gratitude between movements, for the dropping of programs from the balcony during slow movements, and running through the isles inspired by Strauss’s lively rhythms, betrayed the utter rapture pulsing through their veins. One would have thought Pan himself was bewitching some old wood spirits, beckoning them to their youth. It was all the more admirable in that they managed to restrain themselves the rest of the time, concealing their passions by affecting the most severe yet original expressions of utter boredom. Best of all, there was even a rumor being whispered among the more wise and speculative that the annoying feedback in the first half of the concert was also a result of enthusiastic audience participation, an alleged hearing aid that could not help but sing along. I am deeply moved if that is the case. As a connoisseur of passion that cannot help but express itself despite all argument for restraint, I say “Bravo” to them.

Besides the fact that Starker was completely unfazed by the transcendent nature of his audience, his performance was otherwise remarkably sensitive. A performer has quite a responsibility on stage. He has to draw his inspiration from the moment by sending out a million antennae to collect a million sensations and moods, and then incorporate this information back into his interpretation and turn them into music. The weather outside, the atmosphere and sound of the hall, the character of the crowd, the impression of their manners and dress, the performer’s own mood, the glare and color of the lighting, the intensity of the air—all these factors will determine the color of the sound, the sweetness or dryness of his tone, the amount of adrenaline and the type of sentiment that should be evoked in the listener. Is the piece melancholy, capricious, or innocently joyous? The same piece can be any of the three, and it is the duty of the performer to make the spirit known. Starker is no ordinary man in regard to these sensitivities. Every note was just right. It was not the night for Strauss, and thus his tone was dead, his releases flippant, his vibrato frigid, and the musical platitudes of the young Strauss were forced to confront their true nature. The Beethoven was also not the right piece for the night, for though intellectually engaging, it failed to express the longing of the night breezes, the melancholy tones in the evening skies, and the slight affliction of ennui and futile longing that we all suffered from. However, the true superiority of Starker’s insight was revealed in the performance of the Brahms Sonata, which indeed expressed all that was latent and waiting to come to life in the concert hall. There was an immediate, qualitative shift in the experience of the music for everyone. Nothing more clearly expresses this than Starker’s own apparent experience. All music is a labor of love, but I have always thought cello performance to be more explicit in that regard, even bordering on pornographic. We have all seen Yo-Yo Ma and Rostropovich, for instance, make passionate love to their cellos on stage, and not a few women have commented on their jealousy for the object of desire, echoing as it does the very sensuous curvature of their frames. Now, I do not wish to offend anyone’s delicate sensibilities. So, to ignore what the cello resembled in the first half of the concert, and to present the issue at hand gently, let us say that in the Brahms the mature Starker was moved in the passionate way that a lover might be moved. He also began to move physically, swaying and at times shuffling his feet for balance (all signs of a healthy courtship), and in turn the cello’s sound became immensely more…voluptuous.

This necessarily carried over into the encore, in the graceful laments of the charming Schubert. I do not know how such sorrowful tones can inspire feelings of love and unity. Why do we not feel depressed and wretched instead? It is paradoxical, but so is the state of the lover: he both mourns over his state of incompleteness and exalts in the possibility, which is the ecstasy of becoming whole. But I think the self-celebration of the possibility is at bottom much more powerful and convincing than the fact of our wanting, hence, the remarkable manner in which lovers can celebrate their sadness, or in other words, “pine” over their beloved. Although I did not see anyone explicitly weeping or celebrating, I am sure that Starker correctly interpreted his audience and their depths.