On Thursday Zoltán Kocsis celebrated his fiftieth birthday with his now traditional charity concert. Yesterday evening, he was congratulated by his friends and admirers at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Kocsis is certain that the mistaken cultural policy that followed the change of political system will not be repeated and that the National Philharmonic Orchestra, Choir and Biblioteque will continue to receive boosted state support.
– Since the early 1990's, you have given a grand charity concert every year on your birthday. How important do you regard this tradition which is becoming a ritual?
– Not because of the birthday but because of its charitable aim. The income from the concerts goes to the National Children's Rescue Service, which alas still has numerous things to do in Hungary, although the situation is naturally not as bad as in for example Romania, where this organisation has been working since 1989. The blankets, pullovers, home meals for infants that are purchased from the concert revenue are just as important for me as the fact that the activity of the organisation – although a good few politicians are associated with it – has always stood above party politics: if you like, it has become a national matter.
– This year's concert was special precisely because it fell on a special anniversary, your fiftieth birthday. Have you been taking stock?
– I don't feel my age, and I don't bother with it. I don't have the time, because I work to a very tight schedule. When I became acquainted with the poet János Pilinszky in 1974, he was passed his fiftieth birthday and I was only twenty two, but I did not sense the difference in our ages in the least, and didn't consider him old. As for taking stock, I did it ages ago. You do not have to be fifty to be able to look back to your past. I live intensively in the present and consciously plan the future, which of course never shapes up as you expect.
– On June 2nd, tomorrow evening, you are conducting Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloé at the Music Academy, with the National Philharmonic and the National Choir. Not for the first time, you have selected a work which was written in the first ten years of the last century, and which has been rarely performed in Hungarian concert halls ever since.
– Truly, this is my favourite era: if I had to chose when I would like to have lived, then certainly it would be the period before the First World War, in the final years of peace, even if I knew that the horrors of war would come afterwards. In the early 1910's, Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel and Rachmaninov composed numerous masterpieces, Richard Strauss entered his mature phase, and Schoenberg was then thinking in terms outside tonality, of atonality. These were the years of summation and new initiatives, and I feel myself fortunate that in recent years, I have been able to perform with the National Philharmonic Orchestra a number of works from this period, with which I have been preoccupied for many years and about which I feel I have something serious to say. Examples were Rachmaninov's First Symphony, Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, Bartók's Wooden Prince, or Debussy's Printemps. In connection with Daphnis and Chloé, I am currently fascinated by the observation that Ravel's art evidently and most powerfully influenced Bartók's symphonic works. Actually Bartók wrote a brief essay about it, but if we compare Daphnis's nocturnal scene, or Chloé's dance before the pirate leader, then the similarity with the Wooden Prince composed two or three years later is striking.
– Your orchestrations written in recent years also derive from the centre of this era. Why do you want to make orchestras perform compositions originally written for solo instruments or chamber ensembles?
– These orchestrations were brought about by a kind of desire to communicate and an intention to broaden the symphonic orchestra repertoire.
– A CD has been recorded of your orchestrations for the Hungaroton firm which cannot be published, because the Bartók estate will not give permission for your Bartók transcriptions to be released. What will be the fate of these recordings that have been "left in the can."?
– We have come to accept there will be no solution to this problem in the near future, so alongside the Debussy and Ravel pieces, we have recorded two smaller Debussy works – the Scottish March and the Dance – as well as Ravel's Menuet Antique. Actually I did not make all the orchestrations myself, since some are by Maurice Ravel, which is a powerful encouraging force for me, because Ravel was perhaps the greatest orchestrator of all time.
– In the last two years, work at the National Philharmonic has been peaceful and predictable, which is partly due to the recently discharged government supporting the institution with boosted funds, so there were no financial problems, and indeed, the musicians received particularly handsome salaries. Are you not afraid of possible negative consequences because of the change of government?
– I am not afraid of the future because I am sure that the mistaken cultural policies that ensued after the change of system cannot be repeated, when a series of politicians made blunders, amongst others, in music life. I have known Péter Medgessy [the newly elected Prime Minister] for many years and consider him a serious and responsible politician, and hope very much that his government will take seriously his promise that they will not terminate good initiatives simply because the previous governments launched them. The country needs specially supported basic institutions, among them the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and this is entirely independent from parties and politics.
– Many say that the ensemble is over supported.
– Those who say this forget that this is three institutions in one – the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the Choir and the Music Library. This orchestra does not function by inviting free-lance musicians to join a relatively small number of permanent members as each occasion demands. The number of resident musicians is high because the repertoire we play demands it. Although I am not the one who deals with financial matters, I can say responsibly that the orchestra is not over financed. It is true that we do not have any financial problems at the moment, and that we can give our musicians wages that are on a normal European level, but we do not squander money: every forint is accounted for. Over the last four years, a total of nine comprehensive – in other words, not just financial – audits have occurred here, which showed that everything is fine with our spending. I don't want to express this cautiously: I believe that this budgetary support – which will grow from year to year in line with inflation – is deserved by the National Philharmonic Orchestra.
– Gábor Görgey, the new Cultural Minister, recently told Magyar Hírlap that the new concert hall, planned for completion in 2004, cannot be the exclusive home of the National Philharmonic Orchestra. What is your opinion about this concept?
– The creation of the new concert hall is in the interest of all participants in Hungary's musical life, and above all, in the interest of audiences. Therefore, no one must seriously think that any orchestra or institution should appropriate the hall, thus excluding the possibility of others giving concerts there. However, we must strongly insist that the National Philharmonic receive a rehearsal room and office complex – in accordance with the original plans – within the new concert hall building. You see, of the major Budapest orchestras, we are the only ones that 'rent': we have no headquarters of our own, or our own rehearsal room. For many years, an adverse situation has prevailed where we have to pay fifty million or more forints rental to the Vigadó Irodház Kft [the company that owns the building where the orchestra is currently housed in Vörösmárty Square]. We have heard that in 2003, we must leave Vörösmárty Square because they are selling the office building.
– It can be sensed that your work as conductor and music director, guiding the National Philharmonic Orchestra, is demanding increasing time and energy. Does that mean – similar to many other of your famous pianist colleagues – that you are sacrificing your instrumental playing for conducting?
– Absolutely not. I will continue to give a fair quantity of solo recitals, principally abroad. Now, for example, I am preparing for a tour that takes me to Brussels, Antwerp, Paris, Ljubiana and Vienna. It is a fact that now, I do not have too much time for practicing, but I could not exist without the piano, and however much I conduct, it is certain I will die a pianist.
(Magyar Hírlap, 1st June 2002.)