David Starobin Has Been a Tireless Advocate for Contemporary Composers (And Not Just of Guitar Music)
From the Winter 2016 issue of Classical Guitar | BY GIACOMO FIORE
Although contemporary musicians are often used to honing different skills, David Starobin might well be the musical equivalent of a decathlete. The New York-based guitarist’s activities include solo, chamber, and orchestral performances; conducting; teaching at the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; serving as artistic director for the Grammy-winning label and artist management group Bridge Records (which he founded); composing; prose writing; documentary work; and, most recently, writing the libretto for The Thirteenth Child, the latest opera from Danish composer Poul Ruders.
Starobin is perhaps best known for his long and fruitful association with composers such as Ruders, Mario Davidovsky, Paul Lansky, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and countless others, presenting hundreds of new compositions for and with guitar over the past four decades. Many of these works have been recorded by Starobin for his ongoing series, New Music with Guitar, now on its tenth volume. That disc contains chamber works by William Bland, Paul Chihara, Gregg Smith, Michael Starobin (the guitarist’s brother and a renowned Broadway composer and orchestrator), as well as “Oh Mother,” an aria excerpt from Ruders’ The Thirteenth Child.
We touched base with David Starobin in the midst of his August 2016 appearances at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, where he displayed his trademark versatility by presenting chamber and vocal music ranging from Thomas Campion and Boccherini to Mauro Giuliani and Ruders.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: How do you manage the multi-faceted nature of your professional life?
DAVID STAROBIN: I’ve tried to be a searching musician, and I’m probably my own worst critic. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to work with an army of excellent performers and composers who have made it possible for me to continue learning. I hope that the urge to grow is the thread that binds all of the occupations you mention. My life partner, Becky Starobin, is my “enabler.” We’ve somehow melded business and art with our family life. When things are going well, the different occupations run together pretty seamlessly.
CG: What does your practice regimen look like at this stage in your career?
STAROBIN: I’ll be 65 in September, and have a pile of new scores to learn—many more than I’ll be able to squeeze into this lifetime. Most of my guitar work focuses on learning, performing, and recording those works, be they new pieces or neglected music from the past. This is basically what I’ve always done and hope to keep doing.
These days I don’t have a true practice regimen, due to the somewhat sporadic nature of my work with the guitar. This past season I ended up conducting more concerts than I played on guitar, and I’m teaching more than ever.
If I’m not performing or recording, I try to do daily calisthenics, both off and on the guitar. I focus on the joints of both hands and also employ exercises I’ve developed to reduce left-hand thumb pressure. Some of the exercises date back to work with my teacher, Aaron Shearer. All of this changes when I’m preparing for concerts. Then the technical work becomes secondary.
CG: I often associate you with the Southwell “A”-style guitar and with your frequent performances on historic instruments.
STAROBIN: The guitars I play break down into two categories: Viennese-style and Spanish-style. The Viennese instruments are generally the most practical for the music I play and the technique I employ. I prefer them for 19th century music as well as for more modern music. The Viennese guitars feature an ultra-slender neck, higher tessitura—they have “c” frets and, often, “d” frets—and most importantly, adjustable action. For early 19th century music, I’ve played on a Stauffer and Stauffer copies by British builder Gary Southwell. I’ve also done a lot of playing on Viennese-style guitars made by Hermann Hauser in the 1920s and 1930s. For modern music, I play Southwell’s “A” models, which have a cutaway, saddle transducer, and adjustable action.
CG: Please tell us about why you prefer adjustable action.
STAROBIN: Being able to adjust the guitar’s action enables you to serve the music in a deeper way. If I’m playing a left-hand-heavy piece, such as Giulio Regondi’s Etude No. 2—a piece that moves through a handful of keys, including C-sharp major—I damn well don’t want the same [higher] action that I’d want for a largely open-stringed piece, like Giuliani’s Op. 15 Sonata.
For modern pieces, like the Ruders Second Concerto, this type of instrument is almost a necessity. With its cutaway and adjustable action, playing fast above the 12th fret becomes a pleasure instead of a struggle. If I’m playing standard repertoire where a normal action is preferable, the action adjustment is instantaneous.
CG: Which Spanish-style guitars have you played?
STAROBIN: I’ve owned and performed on instruments by Manuel Velazquez, José Ramirez, Daniel Friedrich, Thomas Humphrey, Hauser I and Hauser II, Steven Walter, and Richard Bruné. I still play my Bruné and Walter—a Humphrey Millennium model—frequently.
In this video, shot at NY’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Starobin plays the Rondo in D Major Op. 11 by Francesco Milano (1775–1847) on an 1835 René Lacôte guitar which boasts a label signed by Fernando Sor and was once owned by Julian Bream. Now it’s in the Met’s collection.
CG: You are one of those relatively rare guitarists whose musical world doesn’t stop with playing the guitar. I’m thinking of the instrumental, symphonic, and opera recordings you have produced for Bridge Records. The guitar world can feel a bit insular; how does one “get out more?”
Starobin: The answer is: “go in less.”
Compared to the larger world of music, the guitar scene, as it stands today, is pretty self-limiting. We need innovators more than we need practitioners. I sometimes counsel students to drive their talent towards the unknown. Experiment in areas that presently seem foreign. Plan to play pieces that have not yet been written. Only a few are willing to take such a perilous leap.
CG: What is the “state of the instrument,” from your perspective? Where does the guitar go from here?
STAROBIN: Now, finally, we’re blessed with a large body of music of distinctive quality and variety. It has taken a while for it to accumulate, and we’ve been shamefully inattentive to its development, but after two-and-a-quarter centuries, we have a sizable starting point for serious guitarists of the future. Yes, the six-string instrument’s early history from the 1790s on is still coming into focus, but today’s historians and publishers have made major strides in our awareness of the riches of the instrument’s past.
As far as the “state of the instrument” from my perspective, the guitar world will have “grown up” when we have a dozen good recordings of major works such as [Czech composer Wendell Thomas] Matiegka’s eleven extant sonatas.
CG: I’m particularly interested in the development of the electric guitar as a “concert instrument.” What’s your take on the relationship between the classical and electric “cousins”?
STAROBIN: I started on classical guitar at age seven. My first work with electric was between ages 11 and 14, playing in a rock band. Later, I freelanced in New York City, including a lot of work on electric. I’m sure I played all of Lukas Foss’ many electric guitar parts, and remember playing with him at the Bottom Line [NYC nightclub]. But rock clubs weren’t a typical venue for my electric guitar playing.
Mostly I played electric parts with the New York Philharmonic and Brooklyn Philharmonic.
My favorite work with electric guitar came as a teacher. For a year, the wonderful Dutch electric guitar player, Wiek Hijmans, came to Manhattan School of Music to work with me. We spent the year devising ways to adapt classical right-hand techniques to the electric repertoire. Wiek had already inspired a substantial number of composers to write for the instrument, so we had an excellent framework around which to develop and build possibilities.
As far as the electric guitar as a concert instrument goes, I don’t feel there’s anything other than some leftover conservative prejudice holding it back. The instrument has extraordinary possibilities and a growing number of excellent composers writing for it.
CG: I understand you’ve just premiered a new piece for oboe and guitar by Danish composer Poul Ruders. Would you tell us more about your longtime relationship with Poul, and introduce us to the new piece?
STAROBIN: Poul Ruders has been writing music for the guitar for more than 40 years—first, for the Danish guitarist Erling Møldrup, and then, during the past 30 years, for me. I regard Ruders as one of our greatest living composers. He’s best known for his operas and symphonic music, but he’s composed guitar solos, chamber music, and two very fine guitar concertos. For those looking for an introduction to his guitar music, I recommend his second guitar concerto, Paganini Variations. It’s a brilliant piece, based on Paganini’s 24th Caprice.
Two nights ago, in Santa Fe, I gave the first performance of Poul’s latest piece with guitar. Occam’s Razor for oboe and guitar is a suite of eight short pieces that create an interrelated continuity as they progress. The interconnected suite form is a favorite of Poul’s. Occam’s Razor has some very tricky rhythmic material, and I was fortunate to perform it with the New York Philharmonic’s superb principal oboist, Liang Wang.
CG: You and Becky penned the libretto for Poul’s latest opera, The Thirteenth Child. What was the process like? Do you think you will continue to write libretti?
STAROBIN: Becky initially wrote the scenario for the opera, basing it on a Brothers Grimm story. Then the two of us hammered out the libretto together. The libretto took about two years to complete. Then Poul composed and orchestrated the opera, which took another two years. Some of the work was exhilarating, and some of it was just plain hard labor with seemingly endless revision. I think Becky and I would do it again if the right story and composer came along, but I sense this may be a one-off in our lives.
CG: What are some of your next projects?
STAROBIN: In recent years, I’ve been delighted to concertize in a guitar duo with the Croatian guitarist Robert Belinic. We play standard repertoire, as well as contemporary pieces. I also have a few compositions I’d like to finish. My last completed piece was a song cycle for baritone and guitar based on Tchaikovsky’s letters to members of his family. That was two years ago. I’m very happy with the way that piece turned out, and hold the hope that the muse may strike again. I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than the process of creating something when it’s going well!
Videos of Starobin playing modern music are, surprisingly, few and far between. Below he accompanies George Crumb (b. 1929) on a short piece from 1998 by the composer called “Fritzi,” from a larger work of “canine portraits” called Mondus Canis. The clip is from the documentary Bad Dog! A Portrait of George Crumb, which Starobin directed.