David Starobin is a classical guitarist, educator, and founder of Bridge Records Inc. Having grown up in Jericho - Long Island, David began playing guitar at the age of seven. Although the pop music scene was in full Beatlemania swing, David was driven to classical music because he enjoyed his teachers approach of instruction. David chose the prestigious Peabody Conservatory to pursue his college music education. It was there, where he met his wife and President of Bridge Records Inc. - Becky Starobin. David practiced his craft as a top notch classical guitarist playing many of the world's most prestigious concert halls including Carnegie Recital Hall. Some of the ensembles that he has collaborated with include: The San Francisco Symphony, National Symphony, Houston Symphony and so many others. In 1981 David founded Bridge Records Inc., and this label is dedicated to keeping classical music alive. It features important artists and composers like Gilbert Kalish, Leon Fleisher, George Crumb and more. David now teaches at The Curtis Institute of Music and the Manhattan School of Music. I recently caught up with him.
R.V.B - Hello David, this is Rob von Bernewitz from Long Island, how are you doing today?
D.S. - I'm fine thanks.
R.V.B. - I understand you're gonna be traveling?
D.S. - We leave on Monday for Denmark, yes
R.V.B. - One thing I wanted to say is congratulations on your Grammy nominations. That's quite an honor... There is a mix of nominations from you and other people in Bridge Records. One of them is The Plectra and Percussion?
D.S. - Bridge Records puts out about thirty discs a year and I worked on about nine of them, and the other twenty or so were produced by independent producers who work for us. That's actually produced by an old friend of mine out in Los Angeles - John Schneider... who had a very close relationship with Harry Partch's music. He's been doing it, and recording for us for years.
R.V.B. - I see that your based out of New Rochelle. Do you have a studio there?
D.S. - We don't have a recording studio as such, although we use a lot of local rooms. I would say 80 to 90% of our recordings are done in concert halls.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me briefly tell me about the production that's coming up at the Sub Culture in New York City?
D.S. - Yeah, our concert on January 16th is on a Friday night at 7:30. Sub Culture is a small concert hall down on 45 Bleeker Street. They present a really interesting variety of concerts. The evening that we're presenting is five premiers of new pieces that feature guitar. One of them that I composed is a piece for baritone guitar, and one of them my brother composed... Michael Starobin. These are also pieces by Yehudi Wyner, Paul Lansky and William Anderson. All of them are ensemble pieces that feature guitar, so there's a guitar duo... there's a piece for baritone guitar... there's vocal music, and instrumental music, but it all features guitar. There's four guitarists playing, and all four of them are former students of mine or current students of mine from the Curtis Institute where I teach, or Manhattan School of Music, or at SUNY Purchase, where I used to teach.
R.V.B. - How did you get started with the guitar? Did you come from a musical family?
D.S. - My father was an amateur pianist, and mostly - he was a music lover. He just loved classical music, so from the time I was very, very young there was music in the house. When I was about seven years old, they got me started on guitar, and they thought it was important that I had classical guitar lessons. They found a very good teacher for me in Manhattan... we lived on Long Island at the time.
R.V.B. - Where about on Long Island?
D.S. - I grew up in Jericho.
R.V.B. - By the Hicks nursery?
D.S. - Yeah, not too far. (Hahaha) So I was seven years old... I took to it and I really enjoyed it. I stayed with it and it became my main instrument. When I was in fourth grade I started on trumpet, and I played all the way through high school. I played in band and orchestra, and I also played percussion, so I could play in the Long Island Youth Orchestra for a couple of years. It was clear to me by the time I was thirteen or fourteen that music was gonna be my life. It was either music or baseball, and I didn't have a good enough throw down to second base... "I was a catcher", to really make it as a baseball player.
D.S. - Oh, Mets.
R.V.B. - Now I really like you. (Hahaha)
D.S. - No, I could never be a Yankee fan. I mean I'm a New Yorker so I could tolerate the Yankees and ever occasionally root for them but definitely a Mets fan.
R.V.B. - Do you remember the 69 series?
D.S. - Of course! I remember the 69 series especially because it was my first year going to a music school and the music school was in Baltimore. It was amazing that, there they were in that series, and here I was in Baltimore rooting against the home team. All of the kids in school were mostly for Baltimore, so it was fun.
R.V.B. - It was just a magical team they had, and that they were able to beat a team with Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson. They were pretty much outmatched except for the pitching staff.
D.S. - Yeah, I mean they shouldn't have won. Ron Swoboda shouldn't have made the catch like he did. It was just one of those things... it was just in the air and it happened and it was magic.
R.V.B. - So getting back to the guitar. Did you have a major coming out recital or did that happen later on in college?
D.S. - Well, I was playing recitals... I had played a couple at Carnegie recital hall with singers. I sort of made an official debut... in those days, in the 70's... the New York Times actually covered debut recitals. It was a big deal, so I decided I would have a debut recital and I got a whole bunch of composers that I worked with, to write me new pieces and I played a concert at Carnegie recital hall. I was older... I was like twenty six or twenty seven when I made the official debut. I have been playing a lot of concerts before them. We called it a debut but it wasn't.
D.S. - I played in a rock band when I was eleven or twelve years old. I think our last gig was at the New York State pavilion at the World's fair in 64. There's actually a very embarrassing film that my parents shot of me playing on stage in my rock band. (Hahaha) I was like thirteen then, and I was aware of it definitely, but I was done with it by the time I was thirteen. Classical music was just much more interesting for me. It was just something that needed a lot more work than rock.
R.V.B. - I see, can you give me a brief description of the teachers that you had?
D.S. - My first teacher was a guy named Manual Gayol. Manual was a Puerto Rican who came to New York for a number of years, and he was a concert guitarist. I still consider him my very best high school guitar teacher for a number of reasons. First of all... I was a seven year old kid, and he could of either bored me and made me not interested, or he could of grabbed me and pushed me forward and he did the latter. He really grabbed me and made it enjoyable and fun. He was in New York for about four years while I studied with him. Then he went back to Puerto Rico and I had to find another teacher quick... which I did. A couple of years later my parents said "You're fourteen or fifteen years old now... you got to start thinking about college." I started commuting from Jericho by taking the Long Island Railroad into the city, and I started commuting by taking a train down to Baltimore to study with Aaron Shearer. Aaron was considered one of the really good guitar teachers around at that point. When I graduated from high school, I went down to Peabody Conservatory for four years and I studied with him. He was an important teacher for me. Maybe an even more important teacher for me was a pianist... who was at Peabody at the time, and that was Leon Fleisher. Leon ended up coaching me, and I played in an ensemble that he formed in Washington. He was a great legendary musician, and it turned into a really good relationship for me, which culminated this past year. He's 86 years old now, and he made a solo recording for us, which has been nominated for a Grammy as the best solo record of the year. You can never tell what happens with this kind of stuff. You try to predict who's the favorite and who might win. We have five Grammy nominations this year. I would say they're all long shots. There are five people nominated in each category, so you have a 20% chance of winning. I would say of all of the five nominations, Leon's probably stands the best chance of actually grabbing a Grammy. It's just a guess, but there's my prediction.
D.S. - Yes. I produced that one, and it was great because over the years, I have my life here in New York and he has his life. He's a very busy teacher and concert player. Our paths had sort of separated, and we got together and made a recording, and it turned out nicely. It got all sorts of great reviews which culminated with this Grammy nomination. It brought back the relationship I had with him, but in a different context. I was sort of running the show and he was the performer. It was my job as the producer to offer a little guidance to him, which was quite scary to me. First of all he was a senior musician and I believe he's one of the great musicians that I've ever been in contact with. For me to be in the position to tell him "Yeah, you might try it this way" was unusual.
R.V.B. - You played in the Theater Chamber Players with him?
D.S. - Yes, that was the name of the group in Washington. That was while I was in school, and that would of been 1970 or 71. I played in that group for another ten or fifteen years.
R.V.B. - Now I see you've played a lot of nice places... halls and festivals. For example when you played Aspen or Tanglewood... was that a summer activity?
D.S. I played Aspen and Tanglewood when I was a professional. I was just going there to play a concert. The summer festival where I spent the most time was at Marlboro Music Festival up in Vermont. It was an amazing chamber music festival and still is. It's one of the great festivals in the US. If anyone asks what affiliation did you have with summer music festivals, I think Marlboro... although this coming summer, I'm gonna go to another great one up in Banff... up in Canada, which is another great music festival. They have me up there for a week or two, and I'm looking forward to that.
R.V.B. - Now you obviously have a lot going on with your record company. How do you manage your time with practicing and production work. What is your regiment like... how often do you practice?
D.S. - I try to practice every day. Sometimes I don't... like this coming week, I have to produce these orchestral recordings in Copenhagen Denmark. I'm not bringing a guitar, because I know that my week is going to be dedicated to that work of working with the orchestra and working with the Danish radio. There's just not going to be time for me to practice. Fortunately, I don't have many playing gigs coming up for a number of weeks, so I can get away with not practicing. Most of my life... these days, is spent with the record label producing recordings. I don't travel as much as a guitarist. I'm 63 years old and I toured for decades, and played a lot of guitar concerts. Another thing, besides the record label that I do a lot now is teaching. I teach at The Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and I teach at Manhattan School of Music. I think teaching in terms of my thinking, is the most important thing in my life right now. I love producing recordings but I think teaching is maybe more important than anything else to me.
D.S. - Yeah, I'm very lucky that I have students auditioning for me from all over the world. I don't have to take so many of them. I'm really lucky to be able to teach students that are truly, truly excellent. They are formed concert players already. They come to study with me. I really think that I devote most of my energy when I'm thinking about music, to teaching and my students. When you get to a certain age, it's like well I've done this, I've played. The most important thing you can do, is pass on whatever knowledge you've gained to the next generation, and watch them take it way past you were able to take it and just watch the art grow.
R.V.B. - That's awesome. I just wanted to ask you about Bridge Records... how did you come about to form it. What was your plan?
D.S. - It came about because I had been making recordings for a number of other labels. This was in the late 70's, and there was a record that I wanted to make. I took it around to a couple of the labels that I was recording for and they were not interested, because they thought the music was a little far out. I spoke to an engineer friend who was much older and much more experienced and he said to me "Why don't you just record it yourself? If no one is interested in it... release it yourself." Those were LP's in those days, so I recorded this LP and I issued it. I then had a record label with one LP out. Then a couple of friends called me and said "You know, we have this really great record that we want to make... would you be interested in putting it out on Bridge?" The two friends happened to be two of my musical hero's... the mezzo soprano Jan Degaetani and the pianist Gil Kalish. So our second LP was a recording that they made, that won all sorts of awards. I had this kind of beginners luck with the label, and at that point I said to my wife Becky, who is a partner in the record company "You know, this is actually something serious. We got a great artist to make a couple of records for us. Let's do this... let's make a go of it." Starting up a business, when you are essentially a couple of kids with no money... we started it on a credit card that we quickly maxed out. We got going, and one thing led to another. We built a catalog and we've been doing this for decades now. We're building a catalog, making records, and trying to sell them.
R.V.B. - You've grown into a pretty major classical genre label.
D.S. - Well of the small companies, we are. We're one of the more important... I like to think... labels that are issuing an interesting repertoire and is still at it. Most of the guys with major labels found that classical music sales were not so lucrative anymore, and weren't selling too many records, so they basically got out of the business. Even the big corporations found that classical music was not something that was going to be profitable for them. Becky and I come from - as musicians... so for us, the music has always been put in front of the financial aspect. It's not always the easiest thing to bring off. You have to be incredibly careful to be able to stay in business. A business where the recording costs are often far, far greater than what you will recoup in selling. It means you have to be a fundraiser... you have to do all sorts of things to ensure you can pay the rent and pay the employees. We have employees now, and they have to be paid. It's a business now, which is not what I thought it would be in the beginning when I put out my first LP. I had no idea it would end up like this.
R.V.B. - You mentioned Gil Kalish. He's affiliated at Stony Brook.
D.S. - Yeah, He's been out there for many decades. There are two hero's I had when I was in my teens and going to college. One of them was Leon Fleisher and the other was Gil Kalish. He made a career out of playing: solo music, chamber music, old music, and new music. I thought that more than anyone else, Gil represented to me, what an ideal musician should be. We had the opportunity to record a solo album with Gil this year, of music by Shubert, Haydn, and Beethoven. I can't tell you what a pleasure it was to work with him. He's humble and elevated at the same time. His musical standards are as high as anybodies I've ever known, and yet his ability to come down to earth and be a wonderful human being is just second to none. He's a lovely man and a great musician. It's just been an incredible privilege in my life to know him.
R.V.B. - He sounds like a really nice man. Did you do that album locally?
D.S. - That actually was done up in Massachusetts. We ended up in a concert hall at a college. These things happen in strange ways. We had an engineer who we were working with who said "You know, I have this college room, and it's a very nice room to record in... and dates are free." Gil happened to have some free dates and it all worked out. That's how that happened.
R.V.B. - Now I see in 1995, your company co-produced a series with the Library of Congress.
D.S. - Yes, that's still actually an ongoing relationship with the Library of Congress. They opened up their concert archive. In 1937 they started making recordings of concerts in their concert hall. We signed this arrangement with them to listen to and look at all of these recordings... or as many of them as we could. A lot of them are very old acetate discs and not in good condition at all. Some of them had to be worked on for years, to make them sound releasable. We started issuing a series of them on CD. We did a lot of The Budapest String Quartet recordings from the library... the violinist Nathan Milstein, the soprano Leontyne Price... all sorts of major artists who have appeared at the library over the course of those decades. These recordings had never been issued to the public. So we started cleaning them up, restoring them, and issuing them. It's a fantastic relationship that we have with the library.
R.V.B. - Are you still currently working with them?
D.S. - We do, but we scaled down, simply because we have too much other stuff that we are doing. We still work with them and talk to them quite often.
R.V.B. - I see, well congratulations on everything that's happening with your career and your record company. You are doing a lot of great work and you're keeping classical music alive. You and your wife seen to have fun doing it... you mentioned Becky is a musician also?
D.S. - Yeah, we went to school together at Peabody in Baltimore. We entered the same year and she's a violinist. When we both graduated from Peabody, she went to Houston for her Master's degree... which is her home. I went back to New York... my home, and we had a long distance romance for a couple of years. This was before the internet, before cell phones, so there was a lot of letter writing and the occasional phone call. We'd see each other once or twice a year and finally I got really sick of that. I knew that there were no other girls that were really as interesting as she was. One day I called her up and I popped the question and we decided to get married. We got married down in her back yard in Houston. Then I got her out of there, because Houston is really hot and not the nicest place to be in the summer. We moved back up to New York and we're celebrating our 40th anniversary in June.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up in New Rochelle?
D.S. - I lived on Long Island until I went to school and when Becky and I got married, we lived in Manhattan for four or five years. Then we moved back out to Long Island. We were there until sixteen or seventeen years ago, when we moved to New Rochelle and bought a house up here.
R.V.B. - That's where Glenn Miller became famous, when he played at a the casino on the water there.
D.S. - New Rochelle had Laura Petrie and Rob Petrie. That's the New Rochelle of the TV show, but New Rochelle actually has a history of incredible musicians and artists. It's a really great community and we're very happy here.
R.V.B. - Now you can see it miles away with those tall buildings. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and enjoy your trip to Europe.
D.S. - Thanks a lot. good talking to you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz on 1/3/15
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form with out permission from this site.
For further information on David and Bridge Records click here http://www.bridgerecords.com/
Photo credits Pete Checchia, Bridge Records Inc.