Zoltán Kocsis: An orchestra starts to transform thanks to contemporary composers
In the National Philharmonic Orchestra and National Choir's programme for next year, there are a pleasing number of rarely heard pieces. Why were they chosen and why are there so few contemporary Hungarian works performed at the ensemble's concerts? – we asked Zoltán Kocsis, chief musical director.
– The two month American tour was the defining feature of this season now drawing to a close. What was the greatest benefit of this monster tour for the orchestra's leader and musicians?
– The orchestra passed the test not just musically but also in terms of discipline and artistic development with top marks. For me this discipline was something truly new: I would not have thought that after such a length of time even greater unifying power is at work in the ensemble than before. Yes; the music helped the musicians through the difficulties. We made a fortunate decision when we prepared several different programmes; as an example it was refreshing after playing serious weighty programmes to then give a Vienna flavoured concert. We did not have to convince anyone about the tangible results, or that to perform masterpieces after a tiring journey is still the privilege of those pursuing one of the noblest vocations. This experience was more important than the fact that we have been invited back, or that we experienced overwhelming critical and audience reactions. But above all I have decided that a tour must never be longer than three weeks.
– On a personal level, did the musicians and the general music director succeed in growing closer together?
– There are always confrontations, but not between me and the whole orchestra. The conflicts develop with orchestral members who fall far from my own basic artistic, human and intensive stance Since debate is allowed, indeed it is desirable, some good can always accrue. I don't regard myself as the ultimate authority, I am happy to accept good ideas; but it does make me angry if after what we discuss at a rehearsal, some small disturbance is sufficient for all the old bad reflexes to come back into play.
– The programme for the Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Choir is now published and subscription tickets are on sale. Does French music continue to be emphasised in the concerts?
– I don't want to get fixated with Debussy and Ravel, but the fact is that just these two represent what for a very long time was kept hidden from Hungarian audiences: the Mediterranean spirit. Without these two composers, music history would be very poor. If they had not existed, we would sense a void in the history of musical development. This repertoire has a great advantage of inspiring musicians, who then turn to works they don't know with more courage and willingness. Dealing with new works brings immense benefits, so that this work can later be sensed in other well known works, placing them in a new light. It is certain that a performance of Sheherezade (in late April) will have a stimulating influence on the Ravel Spanish Rhapsody which we still have to perform this season (in June).
– Have you invited several distinguished French conductors as guests because they possess a great understanding and feeling for this Mediterranean spirit?
– Absolutely not, I invited them because I consider them good musicians. Hungarians do not necessarily play Bartók better than others. The members of the American Juilliard Quartet for example have immersed themselves so deeply into this style – they listen to phonograph recordings, Bartók's own piano playing, and have read vastly on the subject and practised so much; they love this music so deeply that presently no one plays the six Bartók string quartets better than they do.
– Will there be any works performed which for some reason are considered rarities for the orchestra or for Hungarian audiences? I am thinking of compositions for immense apparatus as the Strauss Alpine Symphony, which was a great success a few years back.
– It would be a sin not to exploit the possibility which the Philharmonic group (which includes the National Choir) represents. My “undertakings” began with the Hungarian premiere of Gurrelieder, when we were still the Hungarian State Orchestra. I similarly regard as a great task and a significant event, the adaptation of Bartók's Twenty Hungarian Folksongs, which will be heard for the first time at the opening concert of our Autumn season at the Budapest Music Weeks. Bartók himself rewrote five of the twenty songs for solo voice and small orchestra, while I have now orchestrated the remaining fifteen for large orchestra and chorus. Next year's season has numerous novelties. In October, we will have a Rachmaninov evening conducted by Zsolt Hamar, in which my own transcription of seven Rachmaninov songs will be heard. These works are rarely performed, since the piano parts are such that only the composer with his physical attributes could play them. We can see in the work however that the composer himself was thinking orchestrally. I don't know the last time that Berlioz's Nuits d'Été, Brahms's Songs of the Fates, Honegger's Fifth Symphony featured in the orchestra's programme. We will also have a concert that presents works that prefigure Mahler's First Symphony. Our series devoted to Petrovics's oeuvre continues with his cantata “The Book of Jonah.” Varietas delectat – our offering is very colourful and the audience will not be bored.
– You mentioned a single contemporary composer. Isn't this rather few, shouldn't more be expected from the national orchestra? Do you not feel that modern Hungarian music is “enclosed in a ghetto”, which can at best be heard at so called contemporary music festivals?
– I myself miss contemporary music. Among other things, an orchestra begins to transform thanks to cooperation with contemporary composers. Today's composers are happier writing for chamber groups – Ensemble Modern, Ensemble InterContemporain, London Simfonietta. György Ligeti, who is a born symphonist, and a number of whose orchestral works are in our repertoire, has written his latest works and concertos for the chamber orchestra groups I mentioned. The younger age group does not write for large symphonic orchestras in the customary sense. What should we do? I don't think that composers nowadays draw inspiration from the traditional orchestral repertoire. Composers are looking for new paths; this consequently brings changes in the composition of the orchestra. I well remember Zsolt Durkó's Concerto, in which he called for twelve flutes. I am not saying let's return to the orchestra in the Romantic sense. OK, let's transform the symphonic orchestra, but there should be masterpieces being written which makes it worthwhile for us, the National Philharmonic Orchestra, to rearrange the orchestra. Many times, I have spoken publicly about the separation of serious and light genres; that for a long time, composers have not bothered with audiences. This is not the task of a sovereign creator; but by the same token, if people talk to me in Chinese long enough and I don't understand, then perhaps I will leave and not even try.
– I cannot avoid the question: when will you write a new work for the orchestra? Ultimately, you comprehend this apparatus best of all.
– I understand orchestration as stylistic practise. My principal aim with transcriptions is for me to makes certain works which otherwise would not be performed into public treasures. People tell me I should compose; for that, a possibility would need to be discovered which creates unlimited time. If I had at my disposal a fifth dimension- that would be very good!