Janos Starker
(Indiana University Jacobs School of Music)
April 29, 2013

Remembering Janos Starker, the Cellist 'Born to be a Teacher'

Renowned concert soloist and prolific, Grammy-winning cellist Janos Starker died Sunday. He was 88.

Starker's career began in his native Hungary, where he entered the Budapest Academy at age 7 and made his solo debut four years later. Starker dedicated his life to music, and left a legacy of teaching and performing.

Starker began playing cello in the early 1930s. Both of his brothers played the violin, so the thinking was that he should study something different. His teachers recognized his talent immediately.

"My teacher called and said, 'Would you like to play the Dvorak Concerto'?" Starker once recalled. "She went, 'This afternoon.' And I said, 'May I use the music?' She said, 'Sure.' And I played it, and that was supposedly one of the big dramatic successes of childhood prodigies." Starker would record the concerto several times later in his life.

 

Starker was born to Jewish parents; he and they survived a Nazi labor camp during WWII, but his two older brothers did not. In 1948, Starker came to the U.S., where he played with the Dallas Symphony and later the Metropolitan Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. But in a 2011 interview, Starker said teaching was his calling.

"I've been caught confessing that basically I was born to be a teacher," he said. "People question the validity of it, because I played all those 3, 4, 5,000 concerts in my life. But the fact is, I think I was put on earth to be a teacher."

Starker joined the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in 1958, and remained there for the rest of his life.

Music school dean Gwyn Richards says Starker had a reputation for being tough on his students.

"He was someone you didn't want to disappoint," Richards says. "You always wanted him to think well of what you were doing. There was always a blend of the technical and the musical, and you wanted to succeed on both fronts."

Former IU basketball coach Bobby Knight, himself known for the demands he placed on his players, once asked Starker to come speak to his team. Afterward, one of the players approached Starker and asked if he could tell the cellist a joke:

"Mr. Starker, there was a car accident, and three cellists died, and they all tried to get to heaven," the player said. "St. Peter asked the first one, 'Who did you study with?' 'Well, Rostropovich.' 'No, you have to go to hell,' St. Peter said. The next one replied, 'Leonard Rose.' The response? 'You have to go to hell.' And the third one comes. 'Who did you study with?' 'Starker.' St. Peter says, 'You may come in. You already went through hell.'"

After learning of Starker's death, world-renowned pianist Menahem Pressler spent the day Sunday in his studio making music. Both men survived the Nazis, both played in Dallas and Chicago, and both reconnected as faculty members at Indiana University.

"He knew the pieces well, and his standard was very, very high," Pressler said. "But he was a perfectionist, so during performance he was very concerned with perfection — and he was perfect."

Starker pursued a solo career while teaching, but his declining health took him off the concert stage in 2005. He continued to teach until this past winter, often inviting students to his house for a lesson. He often said teaching was what kept him alive.

"I had very little chance of surviving WWII," Starker once said. "And when I survived it, I said I should make it justifiable why I stayed alive."

Janos Starker's legacy can be heard not only in his own recordings, but also in the hundreds of students he inspired.

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Jimi Hendrix
(AP Photo)
February 21, 2013

New Recording Surfaces of Jimi Hendrix Gig in London

Guitar great Jimi Hendrix continues to inspire legions of music fans more than 40 years after his death. In the coming months, there will be a new release of some of Hendrix’s recordings, and a movie about the musician’s life.

What’s also amazing is that while Hendrix’s career was brief, he left behind a wealth of recorded material. New tapes of Hendrix seem to surface all the time. But none quite like the one I had the privilege of listening to recently.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. To tell you the story of this recording — which involves a rock god from Seattle, a literature professor from Massachusetts, and a soundboard in London — we have to go back exactly 44 years.

It’s February 18th, 1969, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience is arguably one of the biggest rock acts on the planet.

Hendrix himself is living in London in 1969. Now, you might be asking: how did one of America’s great rock musicians end up there?

Here’s how that happened. Back in 1966, Hendrix was in the States, making his way as the guitarist for acts like the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and King Curtis.

But Hendrix was also doing gigs with his own band. And at a show in New York City, Chas Chandler, the bassist for the British group The Animals, heard Hendrix play.

“Chas Chandler wanted to get out of playing and into management, and when he heard Hendrix playing in a little club in Greenwich Village, he thought, ‘I think I’ve found the person I want to manage,’” says Joel Brattin, who has written more than 250 articles on Hendrix.

Brattin says Chas Chandler knew just what to do with the young guitarist.

“He brought Hendrix back to England, formed The Jimi Hendrix Experience with two British guys, Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, and started recording, and playing clubs and gigs in England.”

Hendrix’s girlfriend at the time, Kathy Etchingham, recently told the BBC how Brits reacted to his first gigs in London.

“Everyone’s eyes were glued to him. He looked different. His guitar playing was superb. People in England hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was quite…out of this world.”

British rock greats like Eric Clapton, The Stones, the Beatles took note, and suddenly they all wanted to jam with Hendrix.

The Experience spent some months touring around Britain and Europe. The band released its first album, “Are You Experienced?” overseas.

And then came the famous performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in California in June of ’67.

That’s when Americans finally discovered what Jimi Hendrix was all about.

 

 

Of course, setting a guitar on fire and smashing it does make an impression, but it was his near miraculous playing that really wowed people.

And the next few years were devoted to almost constant touring and recording. In short, working.

“Hendrix would put hours and hours in at the studio, then play a gig or maybe two gigs at night,” says Joel Brattin. “When he was done with that, what would he want to do? Find somebody and jam. And many of those recordings are documented.”

Joel Brattin has made it his life’s work — well, part of his life’s work — to parse out this wealth of Hendrix material.

I say part of his life’s work because Brattin’s also an expert on Charles Dickens. He teaches early 19th century literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

But he’s convinced that Hendrix is just as worthy of study as Dickens.

“Hendrix wasn’t a typical pop or rock musician,” Brattin says. “Hendrix was an improviser. So, if there are 100 different recorded versions of Purple Haze, it’s really worth listening to all 100 because he does something different each time.”

And that brings us back to February 18th, 1969. Forty-four years ago, The Jimi Hendrix Experience was gearing up to play the first of two gigs in London’s famous Royal Albert Hall.

The second show — on February 24th — was pretty well recorded and documented. But not so the February 18th show.

Brattin hands me a very marginal bootleg recording made by someone in the audience that night. He plays Hendrix’s version of “Hear My Train A-Coming.”

“It’s a song that was very close to Jimi Hendrix’s heart. It’s also just a lovely composition with a great range. It shows Hendrix’s expressiveness, his tenderness, his passion.”

But little of that comes through in the bootleg recording. In fact, it’s the kind of thing you’d expect, with lots of crowd noise, and hiss.

 

 

So imagine Brattin’s surprise when he recently got a note from the editor of UniVibes, a magazine devoted to all things Hendrix.

The editor asked Brattin if he wanted to review the soundboard recording from Hendrix’s February 18th, 1969 show. That meant audio taken directly from the mixing board used during the performance.

Brattin said yes, and a while later — while teaching Dickens in London, of course — he received the CDs.

Suddenly, the concert came alive in ways few had heard before. Brattin explains that you now get to hear the real Hendrix, and at an interesting point in time.

This is one of the last recorded shows he played with The Experience in Britain. By June of 1969, the band would break up and go their separate ways. By September of the following year, Hendrix would be dead in London at the age of 27.

“I do think this is the concert tape find of the century,” Brattin says. “Of course, the century’s not that old now. But it’s the most exciting live concert tape find for decades.”

Brattin played most of the soundboard recording for me recently. But because of worries over the legal rights to it, he would only give me less than a minute to illustrate the radio version of this piece. Still, Brattin points out, it’s enough to get a sense of Hendrix’s exquisite fretwork.

I asked Brattin all the usual questions. Who made the recording? Where was it all of these years? Who might’ve found it? Who could’ve been hiding it?

He wouldn’t answer any of that on the record. “It might get weird,” he said with a smile.

Hendrix’s estate is pretty strict about the release of recordings such as these. Still, Brattin hopes that one day the soundboard recording for the February 18th, 1969 show in Royal Albert Hall will be released to a wider audience.

The demand, he says, will always be there for it. “It is kind of incredible that Hendrix died more than 40 years ago, and he still tops readers polls all over the world. Number 1 guitarist, most influential guitarist, and so on.”

Oh, and a footnote that Brattin wanted me to point out. After the February 18th gig, Jimi Hendrix went back to London apartment and jammed on a 12 string Epiphone acoustic guitar. The tune of choice as caught by a video camera that was rolling?

“Hound Dog.”

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January 10, 2013

Music Director of Chicago Symphony to Miss Concerts

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra says music director Riccardo Muti will miss three concerts and a student engagement because of flu-like symptoms.

The symphony said yesterday that Muti has withdrawn from concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday (January 17, 18 and 19)  of next week. He will be replaced by guest conductor Edo de Waart.

The 71-year-old Muti also will not attend a Monday open rehearsal of the Chicago Youth in Music Festival Orchestra, which includes Chicago-area high school students and members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will replace him at the event.

This is the second time Muti has missed symphony performances. In 2011, he was hospitalized in Chicago after fainting during a rehearsal and suffering jaw and facial fractures.


Ernie Hays
(Kelsey Proud/IPR)
November 01, 2012

Ernie Hays, Longtime St. Louis Sports Organist, Dies At 77

A long-time fixture at Busch Stadium has died.  Organist Ernie Hays passed away Wednesday night at the age of 77.

Hays spent 40 seasons as the ballpark organist, and in 2010, announced his retirement

Hays was also organist for the NHL's St. Louis Blues, college sports teams and for professional soccer in St. Louis. But he is best known for his work at both the old and new Busch Stadium.

"We are deeply saddened by the passing of Ernie Hays," Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said in a statement. "Ernie’s music shaped the soundtrack of Cardinals baseball for nearly four decades. He was one of the premier sports organists in the country, and a valued member of the Cardinals family. The entire Cardinals organization extends its sincere condolences to his wife Loreta and his entire family."

Hays, a St. Louis native, studied music at Drury College and Southwestern Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield. After four years in the U.S. Navy, Hays returned to St. Louis and earned an engineering degree from Washington University.

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September 24, 2012

Contract Talks Resuming in Chicago Symphony Strike

Talks aimed at settling the Chicago Symphony Orchestra strike are set to resume three days after musicians walked off the job.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra says negotiations will get under way on Monday afternoon.

Musicians went on strike Saturday over wages and health care costs, forcing the cancellation of the season's first Saturday night show less than two hours before it started. CSO officials say famed conductor Riccardo Muti was "very, very disappointed.''

The contract expired more than a week ago, but musicians played the first concert Thursday and a free one on Friday in Millennium Park before talks broke down on Saturday.  It's the first CSO strike since 1991.

The Chicago Federation of Musicians says proposed increases in health-care contributions would amount to a pay cut for some.


September 21, 2012

Nathan Gunn to Head Council to Commission New Operas

A renowned lyric baritone and University of Illinois voice professor will lead an effort to commission and perform new American operas.

Nathan Gunn has been appointed the director of the recently formed American Repertoire Council of the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Gunn will serve as artistic advisor to two composers in residence … and star on one of the new operas already commissioned by the council. It’s a work based on Charles Frazier’s best-selling novel “Cold Mountain”, with music by Pulitizer-Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon.

Gunn’s appointment with the American Repertoire Council was announced in Philadelphia last week. At a news conference, he called the new position “a privilege.”


September 13, 2012

Peoria Area Relative Remembers Slain U.S. Ambassador

A Peoria-area musician is remembering former U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died this week as protestors stormed and burned the U-S Consulate in Libya.

David Commanday, who is with the Heartland Festival Orchestra, was Stevens’ step-brother. Commanday said Stevens was a remarkable man, who had a strong commitment to peace.

“One of the comments that really struck me was his ability to be in a room and respond sympathetically to both Palestinians and Israelis at the same time, in the same room," Commanday said. "He was such a genuine man, and I’m really proud that we have people like Chris representing us.”

Commanday said he is grateful his step brother and all those in the military and diplomatic service have committed to making the world a better place, even though they’re paying a real and personal cost.

Meanwhile, there is no word on arrests in Libya related to the attack that claimed Stevens’ life, along with three other Americans.

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