The return of a roving virtuoso

Shona McKay April 19 1982

The return of a roving virtuoso

Shona McKay April 19 1982

The return of a roving virtuoso


Shona McKay

There is a sparsity of detail about the room. A sense of having been thrown together for an interlude. The plain furniture is reminiscent of long waits in a doctor’s office; the blank walls offer no clue. The music stand sits empty of Bach or Bartók, and a violin is nowhere to be seen. Not one to mar a theme, Steven Staryk, erect in an upright chair, has the formal air of a visitor in his own home.

At 50, Staryk is Canada’s premiere violinist. As he muses on his return to Toronto, after almost a 30-year absence in London, Amsterdam,

Chicago and Vancouver, his mood reflects less a sense of coming home than of irony.

Irony in the dark eyes that are expressive one moment, unreadable the next. An eloquent man, he pauses often to refine a nuance, to approach a phrase from a different angle. “Canada is a hockey culture,” says Staryk. “It certainly is not the place to be if you want to make a career in serious music.” This fall, when the Toronto Symphony opens its season at Roy

Thomson Hall, Staryk will take up the chair of concertmaster, the highest position for a violinist in an orchestra. Yet, Staryk is plainly less than awed by the appointment. “It is the least important thing I have done in my career to date. With all due respect to my colleagues, I have had more experience and possess more ability than anyone else in the symphony.”

It is not an arrogant or idle boast. In

the mid-’50s, fiddle in hand, Staryk left Canada for Europe. It was not long before the legendary conductor Sir Thomas Beecham snatched up the young, unknown colonial and made him concertmaster of London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Three years later, he occupied the same position in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw and from there moved on to the Chicago Symphony. Staryk has turned down offers from as far afield as Los Angeles and from as high as the Berlin Philharmonic. Notes Mario Bernardi, music director of the' National Arts Centre Orchestra: “There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Steve is a better musician than anyone currently in the TSO.”

If Staryk’s return to the home front has little to do with his career, it has everything to do with his family. He is devoted to his wife of 18 years, Ida, a former violinist at the z Concertgebouw, who gave up gher career to follow him. Quips |the musician: “Most violinists swill keep one fiddle and change |their wives. Well, I’ve had |many instruments.” Too, there Sis Natalie, his 11-year-old

daughter who plays the violin and the piano, but has no ambition to pursue a musical career. “I am thinking of my child,” says Staryk. “You get more fussy when you have a child. I have schlepped around the world enough to feel a need to settle. It’s mere coincidence that it happens to be in Canada.”

It is not surprising that Staryk feels no particular attachment to the country of his birth. The only child of poor Ukrainian immigrants, he possessed a childhood worthy of Dickens’ pen. When Steven was 2, his father committed suicide because he could not find work during the Depression; his mother eked out a living cleaning other people’s houses. The Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which he attended for five years, offered no refuge. Though only three kilometres away from home, the privileged WASP institution was an unbridgeable distance socially from his own ethnic neighborhood. In 1951, as a young member of the TSO’s string section, Staryk, with five other members of the symphony, was denied a visa for an Ann Arbor, Mich., engagement by the U.S. government. Somewhere within the bowels of McCarthyism, Staryk’s name had inexplicably come up Red. The orchestra administration acquiesced to U.S. pressure and “released” him from his contract. Shunned by the musical establishment and even by some of his colleagues, Staryk stopped playing his violin for three months—the only time in his life he has done so.

Although he went on to accolades, ovations and a place in the International Who ’s Who in Music, he has carried with him a disquiet about all things political. In 1970, when he was teaching at Oberlin College in Ohio (the Red scare by then forgiven and apologized for), the National Guard marched into Kent State. Two years later, the violinist gathered up his family and moved to Vancouver. Staryk has been asked to adjudicate at the Tchaikovsky Violin Competition in Moscow in June, and the anticipated trip to his ancestral homeland fills him “with a certain curiosity but also apprehension.”

His inherent wariness extends to individuals. The breakup of his brief first marriage was, to a man of his temperament, an excruciating experience. Like an operatic heroine, his scorned spouse followed him throughout England interrupting rehearsals and pursuing him down the streets, much to the delight of the rag press which played up the incidents. As a result, he was forced to change his lodgings frequently and keep his address a secret. Mario Bernardi, who has known Staryk “since our early days in Toronto,” is typical of the violinist’s colleagues who, when pressed to go beyond an assessment of musi-

cianship, admits, “I realize I know very little about him.”

Only with music is Staryk truly at home. Since the age of 7 (“when my mother, in her shrewd, peasant way, decided that it was either to be the pick and shovel or the violin”), it has been his passion and his obsession. Says Staryk: “Life is a compromise from cradle to grave—except for my music.” Staryk’s days are filled with practising, teaching, preparing, recording, listening to and thinking music. Says Victor Feldbrill, the conductor and former violinist who shared a stand with Staryk at the TSO in the early ’50s: “When you think of Steve, you think of a violin. It is an extension of himself.” Staryk has roamed the globe in an effort to increase his knowledge of the

craft. He has had more teachers than you could shake a horsehair bow at. At various times, and often simultaneously, he has held positions as concertmaster, soloist and professor. With more than 170 recordings to his credit, he displays an awesome repertoire ranging from Paganini to Mozart to commissioned works by Canadian composers. He has even recorded gypsy fiddle music under the pseudonym Stefan Primas. Just as he sought out “people whose brains I could pick, even if they didn’t want me to,” so he searched for the perfect instrument. Typically, he didn’t find just one. “Violins are like individuals,” notes Staryk. “No one is a God. No one gives you everything.” The result being that now Staryk plays on two exquisite instruments: a Guarneri and a

Stradivari. Depending on the program, he has been known to change violins and use four or five different bows in the space of one recital.

Staryk’s perfectionism has earned him the reputation of a musician’s musician. Says Feldbrill: “He is held in a certain awe by many of his colleagues.” And by many of the world’s critics. Irving Kolodin, music editor of Saturday Review, called him “a star soloist and the most cherished member of a string section simultaneously.” To be both a star and a team player is a rare combination of talents for any musician and one that will serve Staryk in his job as concertmaster. The concertmaster— who is also the head violinist—acts as the intermediary between the conduc-

tor and the rest of the orchestra. As both player and leader, Staryk has the best of both worlds. Unlike many virtuosos, he values orchestral work above all else. “With orchestras, with the great conductors, through all the discussion and hair-splitting, that’s when I began to understand music in a bigger sense,” says Staryk. Such is his respect for the essence of music that he has grown disdainful of many big-name soloists. “Apart from indulging in all the hype and PR that goes with a solo career, many of these stars, these household names, are limited by that thing they stick under their chin. They don’t see too far over the bridge.”

On stage, Staryk himself is a study in intensity. Each wayward movement,

the lift of a hand, the raising of an eyebrow, is sublimated into the singular act of making music. He has, however, often been criticized for his playing style. Unlike the Sterns and the Menuhins, who stroke their audiences as much as they do their instruments, Staryk is not good theatre. Toronto reviewers have been most consistent in objecting to his “Olympian detachment,” his “lack of glamor which makes the outcome a foregone conclusion,” his air of “disassociation.” They are assessments Staryk has no patience with. “What has sweat to do with sound? When I am playing, all my energy goes into the violin. It’s in there.” Victor Feldbrill agrees: “Perhaps he gives the illusion of coldness, but if you listen, you hear passion.”

A thoughtful and sometimes brooding man, he finds little order in the world around him. “Psychologically, the animal is not a perfect machine,” he says. “There is obviously some problem in man—his greed, his materialism.” Staryk readily admits that his music provides an escape from the chaos. “Only when I have been at it for a couple of hours do things get better. Without my violin, I wouldn’t have my sanity today.”

The fading afternoon light has softened the harsh edges of the room. Staryk’s thoughts travel beyond the here and now. To somewhere far from the cold that irritates a shoulder rebelling against all the years of violin playing. Where the audiences are small and discriminating. Where they listen before they look. A place to bring up a child. “I know it doesn’t exist. But you have to keep looking and hoping,” he says. Slowly and wistfully, his eyes drift to the empty music stand.