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‘Janos Starker made me a conductor’

Karen Kamensek recalls how the great cellist, who died this week, set her on a path to her vocation. Karen is music director at Hanover State Opera in Germany.

karen kamensek

My days in the Starker studio

“A little birdie told me that you want to be a conductor.” Those words were spoken directly to me, an 18 year-old kid from New Albany, Indiana, by the great cello and music master Janos Starker, as I sat at the piano waiting for the cellist whose lesson I was accompanying to change her broken string.

There were other students on the periphery of the room observing the lessons, so I turned around to see who he could have been addressing, when I realized, with a leap in my heart, that he had in fact spoken directly TO ME! Until this moment, the only words that had ever passed between us in my first 14 months as an Indiana University piano performance major were good-mornings, hellos, and definitely a whole slew of respectful and awe-struck yes-sirs from my side. The year was 1988.

 I had quickly established myself at IU as a sight-reading kid, and spent every spare second I had playing mostly in the vocal studios of the great(s)Virginia Zeani, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, James King, as well as the violin studio of Joseph Gingold, and ultimately as a rather junior accompanist in Mr. Starker’s studio. Demands were great in the Starker studio and fears were high that, as an accompanist, one might get shown the door for not being up to snuff, but thankfully I passed the tests, which never got easier!
On this particular day, I gathered up my courage, and decided to actually ask a question…the answer to which was THE turning point in my young musical life. Since I unexpectedly had his attention, I took a risk.  I knew that the “little birdie” had to have been my piano professor, Shigeo Neriki, Mr. Starker’s long-time accompanist. Shigeo valiantly suffered many a lesson where I was sight-reading solo piano repertoire because every fiber of my being wanted to be in the opera, so all my “practice time” was spent accompanying, learning opera rep., sitting in on orchestra rehearsals, and sight-reading my piano lessons! (Thank you for passing me so I could get my degree, Shigeo! And for understanding and forgiving!) I, to this day, don’t know what conversation the two of them had regarding my dreams of conducting, but it was enough to prompt Mr. Starker to suddenly engage me in conversation.
I pretty much immediately responded with “why yes, Mr. Starker, that is true. You must have lots of connections in Europe, do you have any idea where I might be able to assist a conductor at an opera festival perhaps in Germany next summer?” I don’t recall having had  any preparatory thoughts of ever broaching this subject with him, but it just came out in a moment of inspired courage in front of everyone else in the room as soon as he “little-birdied” me! Fate is funny that way. He looked me straight in the eye from across the room, cigarette in hand, pursed his lips as he was wont to do and said “call Dennis Russell Davies, and tell him I sent you.” Well, ok then, I did just that, and the next summer I was in Germany, and went on to assist Maestro Davies for the next five years. It was the beginning of my conducting career.
I didn’t care much to perform in recitals, so I was a jump-in in a pinch kind  of pianist…and because I could sight-read, I was quite busy with lesson and master-classes.  Some of the greatest moments for me as a Starker studio pianist were the moments when I got to accompany HIM.  What I learned in those few precious moments accompanying Mr. Starker imprinted in my body, my muscle memory, my heart, my brain. It was pure musical guidance, a true mentorship, and air under my fledgling wings. He taught me the Dvorak Cello Concerto note by note, transition by transition, in all the Saturday morning masterclasses I played. I imprinted, and sucked up the body language and breathing like a sponge.  He knew full well I was never going to be a pianist, that I didn’t want to be, yet he taught me things through his body-language that definitely founded my physical conducting base. Any Starker student knows the alternating foot-shifting/tapping…a complete  independence of all 4 limbs, and a grounding in the core. To this day I often find myself doing it in my shoes while conducting, when I’m either struggling to find my “flow”, or when I’m happily grounded as well!
Mr. Starker always wanted his cellists to bring new repertoire each week, and even junior teen-aged pianists who just graduated from high school and had virtually NO CLUE (me)  had to simply keep up, or capitulate.  I am a rather vertically challenged person, with quite small hands. Much to my chagrin, Mr. Starker looked at me and the cellist I was accompanying on one particular day and said “next week, the two of you, Rachmaninoff Sonata.” I remember blurting out innocently like a true kid from the back-country,  “the WHOLE thing???” to which I got  “THE look” where the glasses went up even higher on his ever-telling forehead. Thus began one of the longest sustained  panic-attacks of my    short pianistic career. I know I didn’t sleep much in 7 days, perhaps a few hours under a piano in the practice building once. Nevertheless, I went in the next week, and the only thing I remember of the lesson is that at some point while I was shaking and sweating  through a piece that was pianistically way over my head at age 19, Mr. Starker had silently levitated from his chair and came and stood behind ME, not the cellist, put his hands on my shoulders (which were nearly up around my ears in fear and nerves and tension) shoved them down to where they belonged, leaned down and whispered in my ear “for God’s sake, child, breathe! I’m not going to kill you!” Then he said the next thing that altered my life: “Get into a pool. Swim. Everything you will need to know about breathing and relaxing and moving through air to create sound as a conductor you will learn in the water.”
At some point, of his own volition in passing, he said to me “I think you will make a fine conductor.” Again I blurted out “Why? Why do YOU think so? You don’t know me, I’m just a random kid  who plays for your class…and not very well at that…. why do YOU think that?” He answered, “I don’t know yet if you have the determination, or if the business will let you in. But you have a chance, because you’re always playing around with the middle lines…you’re not so interested in the melody, you’re always creating in the middle, working from the inside out.” At that moment, I began to believe that I maybe actually  had a chance. With that moment of recognution, he enabled  me to make contact with my true inner courage.
I became more and more enmeshed with IU Opera and the choral department as time moved on, and played less for the studio. I saw him several times while touring as Mr. Davies’ assistant, when they played together. One time I walked into his dressing room at Carnegie Hall before a rehearsal he had with Dennis and the American Composers Orchestra. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, and I had recently acquired a yorkshire terrier puppy, which I pulled out of a bag to show him. He laughed raspily, raised his eyebrows and said “the last time I saw something like that, it came out of Slava’s case!” (referring to Mo. Rostropovich’s  love for yorkies.) On this occasion I asked him if I could sit and listen to him practice for a while, and take some pictures of him. He agreed.  He happened to flub one of his famous shifts, and I gave him “THE look” from behind my camera, and he said “you didn’t hear that, and neither did the dog.” He pointed with his bow down at Ajax, who had placed himself near Mr. Starker’s feet, and was staring up at him with an uncanny devotion.
After a few years assisting, I went back to IU and got my Master’s in conducting, and started a doctorate. I was graciously given a lot to conduct during my time there. Sometime before either my Master’s or Doctoral  concert with orchestra (my memory eludes me here), I went to see him in between lessons and thanked him for everything he had done for me over 8 years, for being an unexpected and constant  wind beneath my wings, for noticing, for caring, for risking, for helping, for inspiring, for teaching me things that I can barely put into words. Maybe 30 seconds before said concert, a whisper went through the student orchestra “Starker is here…WHY is Starker here?” He had discreetly walked in and sat down very close to my parents. I felt honored that he was there for me.  I hadn’t told him when it was, yet he knew and I meant enough to him that he came!
In 2004 I paid a visit to Bloomington after I had been in my position as GMD in Freiburg for a year. I made an appointment to see Mr. Starker. I still had my yorkie, Ajax, in tow. “You!” he said in his dead-pan way, “She’s STILL dragging you around the world in that bag?” Ajax did the appropriate amount of tail-wagging and licking of hands that many an IU faculty member at that time was subjected to, voluntarily or not. I gave Mr. Starker a huge huge HUGE and long hug, which I intended to have enough meaning to cover for the words I knew I wouldn’t be able to find.  I told him I knew that HE knew what I had been up to in the nearly 8 years since we had last seen each other. Then I took his hands in mine, and looked him in the eye, no longer a young and insecure kid from the country. With tears rolling down my cheeks and a bit of a shaky voice, knowing that I probably wouldn’t be coming back to Bloomington any time soon, and that I likely wouldn’t see him again, I said  “thank you for everything. Thank you isn’t nearly enough. I wasn’t even a cellist, I was just a pianist, and yet you saw something, sensed something in me, and you taught me and HELPED me get a start! Without you I wouldn’t be where I am, or who I am today. I am so incredibly grateful.” His eyes filled with tears, and he cupped my face in his hands, looked deeply into my eyes and said “I am so proud of you.” Anyone who has been on the receiving end of that, and I am not alone, knows what it meant and  felt like. A gift, an honor, a moment artistic and human intimacy based on mutual acknowledgement and respect.
The building blocks of who I am today, not only musically, but as a human being, I owe in great part to this wonderful man, mentor, musician. I did not know him well, nor he me, privately. But looking back, yes he was incredibly tough and demanding, yes he could be scary, and yes he was RIGHT. He pushed us to be the best we could be, he said some really hard things, but never ever out of a place of meanness! It was always out of a place of honor and respect for the music. Once you could look him in the eye and GET THAT, then it became less ego driven, and didn’t feel so personal. He was never out to “get you” he wanted YOU to get at the music, get in it, to BE it to the best of your abilities. Only then could you see the wry and quick  humor beneath his cool facade…and most importantly, his incredible humanity.
I had so hoped that Janos Starker was in fact  immortal. Alas, he was not. Safe journey, dearest Maestro. I hope my Ajax gave you the appropriate greeting up there upon arrival, finally out of that bag! May he be sitting at your feet while you play on in the great beyond, looking up at you with the devotion that you rightfully deserved from every living being whose life you ever touched for even a moment.
(c) Karen Kamensek/Slipped Disc.
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  1. PK Miller says:

    What an inspiring story. What an amazing teacher & Mentor Mr. Starker must have been. Sometimes, a teacher or colleague sees something in you & goes above and beyond etc., to mentor you & your gifts. I remember thinking after watching Dead Poets Society, if one is fortunate one has ONE teacher like that in a lifetime. Musically, I had Fred Kalohn, my organ teacher, who never batted an eyelash when I told him I was not going to be an organist but a singer. “You have to find your niche in music like you do in life! You’ll do all right!” Fred sensed as much as I had (& have) a passion for the pipe organ it was not my true calling. The often irascible Professor Arthur Laabs, theory teacher, conductor & more. James McCracken helped a nascent heldentenor get his voice under control. All of these were as special & vital to me as Mr. Starker was to Ms, Kamensek. We should all express an unpayable debt of gratitude to our teachers especially those who recognized our gifts even if those gifts were not what we thought or hoped they would be. How blessed you were, Ms. Kamensek, to have had such a Mentor. And blessed are they who are willing to impart their gifts and guidance to up and coming artists. “Pay It Forward” was hideous movie proving only one thing: Haley Joel Osment couldn’t act. But the concept is critical. We MUST “pay it forward.” It’s obvious, from what I’ve read here, from so many, Janos Starker did that a thousand fold.

  2. Brava. What an inspiring and articulate eulogy for an incredible musician who touched so many lives. IU School of Music is often thought of as a factory, but for me as well it was a much-needed swift kick in the pants, along with the right amount of nurturing along the way. Janos Starker was a great example of bringing out the best by demanding nothing less and refusing to coddle or cajole, not just his students but everyone around him. And for those who stood up ready for the task, you were rewarded with his highest honor: respect. Oh yes, and keys to move up to the next level if you were brave enough, which clearly you were. Wishing you all the best-MM

  3. Rosalind says:

    Oh what a wonderfully moving tribute and story… thank you so much Karen for sharing it with us.

  4. Keith McCarthy says:

    Wonderful! Norman, thanks for posting.

  5. Celloting says:

    I cried all the way through reading your piece! Bravo.

  6. Hay, my cusine, l am so proud of you. You told us a great true story, muzik is hard work, and you are a hard worker. Maestro is so proud too. Love

  7. Shahar Rosenthal says:

    Dear Karen,
    Thank you so much for putting in writing and words what so many of us who were touched by Prof. Starker’s generosity feel like.
    I send you a big IU hug!

  8. Mark Mortimer says:

    Karen’s tribute is an interesting one [redacted].

    I studied conducting at IU in the late 90′s. I never met Starker though I did hear of the reputation of the great man and had the pleasure of hearing his unforgettable playing on several occasions.

    I’m glad he inspired you to become a conductor because the orchestral conducting programme at IU was very weak and the standard of teaching hardly world class.

    There were other pockets of inspiration at the school other than Starker, notably pianist Emile Naumoff and conductor Paul Hillier during my time there. But I have to agree with one of the other respondents that the whole place was like a hideous factory that produced technicians and not musicians.

  9. Karen Kamensek says:

    Well, that may be the opinion of many, but was certainly not my experience. It is a large school and it certainly has a Darwinian atmosphere, as I would assume schools like Curtis or Julliard also have. Some departments are stronger than others, like in any school. However, a significant number of us IU factory-produced “technicians” are out there using the degrees we actually got, being musicians! Where else should one hone one’s technique if not in school? I only just now am beginning to know what true music-making is, and according to masters like Starker, Gingold, and innummerable other great pedagogues still walking around on this planet, learning to be a musician is a never-ending process. A school should give one a basis in technique. I certainly hope the doctors who operate on us have as good a basis in medical technique as IU gave me in musical technique! I defend IU, and resent the title factory, because to this day I have never been in a place where I could sit in on rehearsals of 7 different student orchestras, or 5 different choruses on any one given day if I so chose, and all within 500 meters of each other. I didn’t expect to be spoon-fed or pampered, I sat in on everything I could…I didn’t rely on one teacher, I nagged them all for extra time and information. Some were better than others, from some I actually learned what NOT to do—also a valuable lesson. I fought to get myself the best education I could because the resources were right in front of me. I never considered it a factory, but rather a musical candy shop! It is Darwinian, and those who couldn’t swim in the deep end had a harder time. What I value most about my IU education is that it simulated very accurately what has confronted me every day in my professional life as a musician. And my education there was thankfully broad, given that it is a big school, and certainly was not limited to the walls of the School of Music? This “factory” I would recommend to anyone who has no fear of Darwin!

    • I completely agree with you Karen. As a conducting major there myself, I experienced many of things you did including visiting lots of rehearsals and learning what worked and didn’t work. I also played percussion in some of the orchestras and that added another level of experience. I can’t think of another school where as a student conductor I would have a day like this: conduct in class in the morning, then conduct a rehearsal with the New Music Ensemble, then one of the orchestras and end the day with rehearsing an ensemble for work by a student composer or rehearse another orchestra for a student concerto performance. Yes, there are a lot of students there but it can be a gold mine if you take advantage of it, as you did. I do not regret a single day I spent there.

  10. Wonderful story! I can relate because I started the masters conducting program at IU the year Karen came in as a freshman and can perfectly picture all of this. Although I had very little contact with Mr. Starker, (I was though encouraged though by another great man on the faculty, Menahem Pressler), I found Karen’s story lines up with the admiration so many had for this man and the immense influence he had. Thanks for posting it, Norman.

  11. Jennifer Mosher says:

    Karen, what a wonderful tribute! I met you briefly on the City Opera National tour of BOHEME, and heard about the wonderful Ajax, though you did not bring him along. Take care—Jennifer Davis Jones Mosher

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