Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi has an enthusiastic and committed following in Hungary of a kind that even the conductors of the leading domestic symphony orchestras – Iván Fischer, Zoltán Kocsis, Tamás Vásáry, András Ligeti – cannot claim. In each of the Japanese maestro's three Budapest concerts in November, the audience awarded him with ten to fifteen minutes of continuous rhythmic applause. Despite this, the professional assessment of Kobayashi's career – particularly his activities when he led the State Symphony Orchestra – are, to put is tactfully, contradictory. Why exactly, some twenty eight years after he won the Budapest conductors' competition, does he still enjoy such frenetic success, unconditional trust and love?
In my judgement this phenomenon can be largely attributed to extra-musical factors. Through the televised 1974 conductors' competition, half the country took this young Japanese musician into their hearts, with his slightly comic exterior but friendly and expansively gesticulations. In those days, the televised conductor's competition – something entirely inconceivable today – enjoyed almost the same cult status in Hungarian public life as the talent show Ki mit tud? and the dance festival. This way, Kobayashi's name became known not just to a few tens of thousands of music lovers, but to a much wider television audience. Young people of that era – those born in the fifties and sixties – will immediately summon to mind some names and faces, when classical music is mentioned: Zoltán Kocsis, Dezső Ránki, András Schiff. And into this elite group, there is one other name, that of Kobayashi, who after winning the competition, became an "honorary Hungarian." He returned several times annually and was always enthusiastically celebrated.
The problems began when after János Ferencsik's death, Kobayashi took over the professional direction of the State Symphony Orchestra (the antecedent of the National Philharmonic Orchestra.) He was essentially a conflict avoider, and in recent years, this type of personality has unwittingly wrecked havoc on a good number of orchestras. He always conducts in an apparent state of ecstasy, his charismatic power attaches itself to the musicians and they are goaded into producing above average results. He was unable to work on a daily basis strictly monitoring the musicians and when necessary, disciplining them, he could not rehearse uncompromisingly. And he probably didn't want to. Alongside a principal conductor such as this, a deputy is needed to wield a whip, someone perhaps not liked by the musicians, but without whom, the orchestra cannot develop. Kobayashi however found himself alone for many years, leading an organisation that was fighting problems of finance, professionalism, morale and even existence. As a consequence, the orchestra underwent a slow but steadily accelerating period of erosion, which was only halted with the appointment of Zoltán Kocsis – many years after Kobayashi's departure.
The past five years have been a period of spectacular development for the orchestra, now renamed the National Philharmonic. Because of the sympathetic artistic and administrative background work – and not least, elevated government support from the state budget – the National Philharmonic Orchestra is now a professional, unified ensemble that bears almost any international comparison. Indeed, it has become an "elite unit." This is how Kobayashi, who now returned to Budapest, found this once battle-scarred army. And for three evenings, he was entitled to reassume his "general's uniform." Whether he was surprised or what he thought about the immense changes, we don't know. But in any case, he whipped them into form with his own naturalness. He leapt, gesticulated and allowed himself to be swept away by the music, Then he bowed with gratitude, demanded an interpreter and said how much he loves Hungarians and what an honour it is for him to be here again (at the third concert, he performed with his daughter who was the soloist in Chopin's E minor piano concerto).
This man clearly has something special about him, because he was so tenderly forgiven by those who still remember the "old sins."