April 22 and 24, 2005
I went to two superb concerts last weekend, concerts which perhaps would have deserved greater attention than they received. The musicians of the National Philharmonic Orchestra gave a chamber music concerts and a concerts for children.
Sadly I was only able to attend the final event of the three concert series and I was most sorry for this. Today most symphonic orchestras have realised just how important are what we might term “satellite concerts”, for example those in which orchestral members are grouped into smaller ensembles or appear solo, or else concerts aimed at youngsters or children, aiming to create tomorrow's audiences.
First let me talk about the chamber music concert for adults. We know that most musicians like to play chamber music. Only there is very little opportunity or time. If an orchestra creates the opportunity for its musicians to give chamber music concerts, it is an investment that pays in gold. Of course not in terms of fees, but in practise, study, development and not least, enjoyment. Hopefully for the musician and also for a segment of the audience. And to those who are not so susceptible to the charms of chamber music, believe me: to hear Schubert's C major quintet is every bit a musical experience as the C major symphony.
It was a particularly good idea that in the Ceremonial Hall of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, they changed the usual (but never fixed) seating arrangements, so that the instrumentalists took their place in front of the windows, while the audience surrounded them in two semi circles either side. It created a more homely and intimate atmosphere, it relaxed the impression of formality and created a true milieu for chamber music making.
Incidentally, it presented the opportunity to revel in the spectacle of the illuminated Royal Castle and the Chain Bridge through separate windows. It was a broadly unmusical enjoyment and apparently nothing to do with Schubert, but as the increasingly deepening ultra-marine blue of the sky slowly turned black behind the great buildings glowing in their warm, yellowing light, it exerted its influence on the slow movement of the quintet, it had a clear effect on people even if that person happens to be a music critic. Further more, there are works – for me the C major string quintet is one of the very first to come to mind – where it is best if the listener surrenders himself, does not battle with the nightmare of objectivity and admits he has been conquered. He hears a work about which one can happily remain silent. Playing such a work is a festival, virtually independent of how it is being played. Easter or Christmas does not become sacred because of where it is being celebrated. It is sacred by definition. If the performance brings it life and makes it possible for the listener to experience the inexplicable, then of course this festive day gains meaning. This is not a festival linked to any date. And the 22nd was one such day, because five musicians gave a fine account of the C major string quintet to the audience. In this long work, they communicated throughout with each other like creators, they filled the slower sections with rhythmic energy and carved out its form, even in the third movement which is so hard to hold together. I particularly liked how they could demonstrate the complexity of the first movement: it is rare to hear this so understandably. The second movement was beautiful, the fourth was liberating. I was a little worried that what was ultimately a part time chamber ensemble had decided to begin by climbing one of the highest and steepest of musical peaks. On these occasions, we unwillingly sense the odour of the hack, the “ok, let's have a go at such and such, if we are playing chamber music” concept. Thankfully, there was no whiff of this, we heard sincere, serious chamber music. For me, on this evening, the cello playing of Mariann Pleszkán stood out from the other musicians for being even more mature but Jenő Koppándi, Nisiho Keiko, György Porzsolt and Sándor Harangozó all showed the audience a high level of chamber music playing.
As for the other works and performer on the programmes, I can only repeat myself. No less a pianist than Gergely Bogányi was invited to play the Mozart E flat major piano quintet by Ágnes Kubina, József Németh, Klára Börzsönyi and László Gál. I particularly enjoyed Britten's Phantasy that opened the programme, in which alongside Dániel Papp, Enikő Balogh and György Deák, Nóra Baráth proved just what a good oboist she is.
I read on the programme notes for this chamber concert by musicians of the National Philharmonic Orchestra that Zoltán Kocsis is the artistic director. I do not know if we must interpret this for the orchestra generally or for this chamber music production as well, I don't know to what degree he was involved in the preparation for this concert, but his versatile performing concept and his insistence on quality could certainly be sensed behind these concerts.
The other concert was for me one of the most pleasant surprises of recent times from a different perspective. The series With whistle, drum and reed violin – a witty title inspired by a folk song title – introduced woodwind, string and percussion instruments in each concert, at a family friendly time, Sunday morning and afternoon.
I took the best critics with me, the children, and I can state, employing that technical terminology they employed that this concert “was cool”!
The brief work by Hubert Anderson introducing the concert, Roll, Boom, Zing! guaranteed the children had not come to be bored. Percussionists Gergely Bíró, Szabolcs Joó, Nándor Weisz and Mátyás Szabó then moved to the marimba and showed that percussion is not the science of bashing the hell out of something. They played three medieval madrigals on the marimba – pieces by Jannequin, Senfl and Passereau. My child who is a loud mouth and beginning his first year of percussion studies then went conspicuously quiet and had no inclination to budge until the interval. Reich's Clapping Music which comprises of nothing but claps was followed by Thierry De Mey's three pieces for wooden table, Table Music which proved the thesis, now clichéd since Cage that “everything and everywhere is music”, particularly if it is done well.
Meantime, Tamás Dunai managed to do such a good job as the host – I know from experience just how difficult this is – and there was not a moment of boredom even during the necessarily long pauses as the instruments were being rearranged. He not only asked the children questions but persuaded two adventurous youngsters to demonstrate just what a good game rhythm is; anywhere, anytime!
During the interval, all hell could have broken lose because the children could have a go on the less expensive instruments, but they quietened and then enjoyed an extract from Vidovszky's Narcis and Echo, a ragtime arrangement for xilophone solo, and the sound of a Basque txalaparta heard with something like baseball bats on a kitchen table (although for the sake of safely I'd recommend a kitchen stool. The concert concluded with Nándor Weisz's partially improvised work Improvization Latin in which Zsolt Mike particularly impressed the kids.
At last, this was a children's concert which lasted just as long as it should have done, in which the spoken introductions were just as they needed to be and the musicians played so that this music critic father forgot in what capacity he had come, and could happily enjoy this very well prepared and professional performance. One more minor point: at the end of the performance Gergely Bíró thanks us for our attention and also paid tribute to the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble for setting them an example. All I can add to this gesture is a hearty “here here”!
(Hungarian Radio, New Music Magazine, April 30, 2005)