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Who will fill the National Concert Hall and how?

2003. 07. 01.

Conversation with Zoltán Kocsis and Géza Kovács

Zoltán Kocsis, general music director of the National Philharmonic Orchestra is one of a number of musicians who for many years have been urging the building of a new Budapest concert hall. Do you think then, that the National Concert hall, which is presently under construction as part of the Millennium City Centre project, and is due to open in eighteen months time, will transform the city's serious music life, and if so, to what extent?

Zoltán Kocsis: – The new concert hall has been a topic for conversation in Hungarian musical society for at least 20 to 25 years, largely reflected through a comparison with the Music Academy. In truth, the Academy, however much we praise it, is not in suitable for large orchestral concerts, and I can know what I am talking about as I have performed there 250 times. The hall was built for chamber recitals, exams and for other Academy events. The designers could never have seriously supposed that the “gigantic” works of Mahler, Bruckner or Richard Strauss, the majority of which already existed while it was being constructed, would receive authentic performances there. Incidentally, I do not have a particularly good opinion of the Music Academy's acoustics: with a full house, the main hall is adequate by and large, but even then, you can experience a certain fluid echo in the centre. I think that the new concert hall is going to change the approach of both musicians and audiences, since the composers I mentioned above will be performed in an acoustically adequate environment. If I can mention just one example: we had to perform Schoenberg's Gurrelieder in the Budapest Congress Centre (in 1998), but that did not prove an ideal venue because the BCC's concert hall is woeful acoustically for the size of the work. So if I can answer the question: naturally, the fact that audiences are used to the Music Academy may cause problems since the new hall lies a considerable distance from the city centre and at present, it not easy to reach by public transport either. But – returning to my hobby horse – I believe that the audience will appreciate it when they can finally hear large scale symphonic works performed in a suitable environment and perfect acoustic conditions.

So you feel the hall will bring the greatest change primarily by enabling and facilitating the performance of such works?

Z. K.: – Undoubtedly. I do believe however, that such an enormous hall does not make an ideal venue for chamber style works, or those that are densely polyphonic. I can however envisage a piano recital or a string quartet concert. It is also worth bearing in mind that the mood, quality and composition of the audience – in other words the atmosphere which forms even before the concert – determines the “temperature” of the concert, and ultimately contributes to the success and the artistic level of the evening. The venue plays a major role. We all know that the atmosphere in the concert hall of the Vigadó never heats up like the Music Academy. I hope that from this perspective, the new hall will live up to the hopes that have been invested in it. I have already experienced with much larger halls that the atmosphere can be incandescent before a concert.

Can we deduce from this that when you assemble the National Philharmonic Orchestra's programme for the 2004/2005 season and later ones, your concerts will all demand vast forces, and you will select different locations for other programmes?

Z. K.: – I didn't say that such a big hall is not suitable for, say, a Haydn Symphony or a Bach concerto, only that large apparatus works can be heard there adequately. I secretly believe that the new hall will create the perfect circumstances for a Haydn or Mozart symphony performance, and that we won't have to think of new venues, because I would not be too happy to follow the practise – which, let us be candid, is not a custom in other parts of the world – to play in several buildings within a single city. In Vienna, Gurrelieder is unperformable at the Musikveriensaal, which is why the Vienna Philharmonic will take it to the Konzerthaus, but this is not characteristic. If possible, the Vienna Philharmonic would remain in the Musikvereinsaal, and I think this is what we should do. When devising programmes for the National Philharmonic, I don't want to be a megalomaniac; in past seasons, we only performed the really mammoth works – such as Gurrelieder, the Alpine Symphony and others – because we had to repay a longstanding debt by so doing, because it was shameful that these works had never been heard in Hungary performed at a decent level. It is saddening to realise that we have given the Hungarian premieres of a good few works like these.

We touched on the importance of the atmosphere preceding a concert, the heightened mood, but for this, you need a full house. You have to persuade audiences to visit a new, and what is more, a non-centrally located concert hall and accustom them to it. What are the chances for this? I now turn to the manager of the National Philharmonic, Géza Kovács – who is the deputy president of the Hungarian Music Council and co-chairman of the Hungarian Orchestras Association, whose job it is to deal with such issues.

Géza Kovács: – In the next couple of year, we can prognosticate a unique situation with regards to Budapest's concert life and its concert halls. According to the current plans, the new hall will open on October 23rd, and not long after, the Music Academy will close for renovation. Earlier, the Pesti Vigadó will also shut down. This means that for a year or two, as the Music Academy and Vigadó are being renovated, there will be no other major concert venue in Budapest besides the new concert hall. This certainly will increase its chances. What will damage its chances are what we have already discussed: that it is not in the city centre; there is poor public transport; we don't even know yet where people can park because this whole area looks set to remain a construction site for a great many years. And one more thing, it will have a capacity twice that of the Music Academy.

Won't it seat 1700?

G. K.: – There will be 1700 regular seats, but utilising the balcony and gallery, the audience will reach 2000. The repaying of the “debt” that Zoltán Kocsis mentioned earlier, is naturally more easily and comfortably achieved in the concert hall, but there are 365 days in a year, and if discount the twenty or thirty days when people generally do not want to go to concerts, there needs to be at least one concert – if possible with a full house – on all the other days. Perhaps this my opportunity to say that I am not just thinking of the concert hall. As you will know, the adjoining House of Traditions will have its own theatre which will seat 400 people and will boasts a superb theatrical and technical background. So its acoustics certainly won't be bad either. This building will also have a museum wing, which offers itself as a venue for special concerts. On the one hand, I feel there is a good chance to put the building “into circulation”, if for several years, we can present audience enticing names and programs on the concert hall's programmes. With this, it may be possible to activate that “grey” layer who do not belong to the regular concert going public. On the other hand, it would help if the entire building offers an attractive opportunity for an extended weekend, holiday or even weekday outing. For this reason, we, the leaders of the institutions to inhabit it – László Kelemen, Katalin Néray and myself – have been meeting and consulting weekly for months now, preparing concepts so that this house will be at least as lively and bubbling as the Beaubourg in Paris, unlike the Southbank Centre in London and particularly, the Barbican Centre, which have not managed to make themselves a truly important part of London's cultural life. If this forced marriage comes about – because moving all three institutions into a single building can only be described as such – then we should try to make it a marriage of love. I see a realistic chance for this.

According to your concept, the leaders of the institutions operating in the building would mutually work out the programmes. Others would like a superintendent to be appointed to head the Cultural Centre, who would professionally direct and supervise the operating of the institutions. Let's concentrate just on the concert hall: we have seen quite a lengthy argument whether the National Philharmonic, who will be granted a rehearsal room and offices in the building, should also be the programme management. Clearly there are good arguments pro and contra. Géza Kovács, what do you see as the ideal solution?

G. K.: – You need to know that when the decision was made to build the concert hall, the politicians considered initially giving the right to operating the concert hall to the National Philharmonic, taking Berlin as a model. Later, this was not confirmed by anyone, particularly after we were transformed into a non profit organisation. For quite a time we believed the operation of the concert hall desired a more market orientated approach. We were clear on this point, what is more, I still don't know as I speak whether we should be sad or glad. The financial background to the Cultural Centre, and within it, its financial operating background of the concert hall has remained unclear for months, indeed years. Those who dream that they will win the right to direct the programmes clearly hope they will receive an astronomic amount of money from the state. There is a logic to this, but it is doubtful whether the government will be able to give enough money, although it is known that the state has underwritten 5 billion forints of guarantees for the construction costs of the Cultural Centre, as well as interest repayments and other contributions.  But this sum has to be repaid within ten years. At the moment, we do not know whether the eventual operator of the concert hall will actually see any of this five billion.

I have read proposals that the operator will have to repay this sum from their own income, which will not be easy.

G. K.: – So I have to say to those circling the meat pot that they don't really know what is cooking. One of the proposals is that a superintendent body be set up, although this has met with significant opposition in professional circles because it could lead to the serious breeches of the autonomy of national basic institutions. Imagine this: who on earth could claim to have a better understanding of music that Zoltán Kocsis, or of ethnography than Ferenc Sebó or László Kelemen, or think themselves superior to Katalin Néray in questions of modern art? So, any superintendent undertaking the management of the Cultural Centre, has to be convinced of all these things. I would hazard the guess that no such person exists. I can imagine however, that the managers of the relevant institutions, while preserving their autonomy, could work out the possibilities for cooperation and mutual programmes within a coordinating counsel. Because, as I have just said, it is in everyone's interest for audiences to fall in love with the building. So someone going to a dance house event would buy a ticket for the concert hall too, or visit the museum to see a new exhibition. As for the concert hall, perhaps the most peaceful seeming solution would be for the cultural ministry to set up a non profit organisation, and then hold an open tender to decide who operates it. I think that would be the proper procedure, since then the ministry has to nail its colours to the mast how big a share it undertakes in the financing of the concert hall, and it is vital that whoever wins cannot be accused of having won the tender by “pulling strings”.

What models exist abroad for how important concert halls coexist with musical ensembles?

G. K.: – It makes for an exceptionally colourful palette. The relationship between the Musikvereinsaal and the Vienna Philharmonic is well known. The Berlin Philharmonic, led by Karajan, built the Berlin Philharmonia and operates it to this day. Originally, the Concetgebouw Orchestra built the Concetgebauw building, but its operation was eventually assumed by an independent foundation. The Concertgebouw Orchestra does not live there, because the building does not allow for this, but is based very close by. They have priority for using the hall and receives a discount, but the Concertgebouw is nonetheless used by anyone. The London Symphony Orchestra works in the Barbican Centre as a tenant, while the Royal Philharmonic functions as the resident orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. One of the finest venues is the Birmingham Symphony Hall, which is the home to Sir Simon Rattle's former orchestra, the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra – the acoustics of which, incidentally, were created by the Artec firm who have assumed responsibility for those of the new Budapest hall – the Birmingham building was built for the orchestra who uses it. In America, orchestras work entirely differently, but clearly the Chicago Symphony Hall was built for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and each of the great  American orchestras has its own hall.

Obviously, they don't organise just their own concerts there, because a single orchestra cannot fill a hall every day of the year.

G. K.: – Of course. This was why I was so stunned to read opinions in the press that when the National Philharmonic Orchestra moves to the Cultural Centre, it will immediately have an unfair advantage, even if it does not acquire the right to organise concerts because we will surely reserve all the best times and all the other ensembles will have to pick over what is left. Just look at the Music Academy reservation book! There we can see orchestras which got up in time and have superb times and perform consequently at certain occasions, sometimes as many as 25 to 35 times a year. The symphony orchestras operating in the capital cannot give  more than forty concerts a year even if they wanted to. We have to satisfy our foreign touring obligations and just talking about ourselves, give about 30 concerts in the provinces. So I would like to dispel all worries that when we move to the Cultural Centre, we will squeeze out the other concert organisers. That's asinine. It is in everyone's interest for the Cultural Centre with its concert hall and the theatre operated by the House of Traditions, to ultimately operate like the Concertgebouw, which on average organises 850 concerts a year in two halls and other venues.

Z. K.: – Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe not that there are too many orchestras in Budapest but too few. As the number of talented musicians grows, with so many musicians bursting from the Music Academy each year, we need more quality ensembles for them. Both the Radio Orchestra and the Festival Orchestra are proud that they play to full houses, and we ourselves cannot complain on that score either, so I think that this cannot be a big problem for the Budapest orchestras to fill the new concert hall. Rather, as Géza Kovács said, two or three concerts a day would or should have to be put on which requires amazing organisational abilities, a developed system of contacts and a great deal of money. I think that Budapest audiences – and as a rapidly developing world city – the growing number of foreign visitors should be able to fill the hall if they are offered truly quality performances. If we can envisage a week in which on one day Maurizio Pollini gives a piano recital, the next the National Philharmonic performs, on the third day the Concertgebauw Orchestra, on the fourth day a Gil Shaham violin concert, while on fifth the Juillard Quartet and on the sixth, the Budapest Festival Orchestra – I cannot believe we could not fill the concert hall each day.

You have just described essentially a festival programme. If the whole year was of this quality, then although people would love to attend at the events, they would probably have neither the time nor the means so you cannot always expect a full house.

Z. K.: – I think this is only partly true. I often go to concerts in Hungary and elsewhere, and it is always my experience that every orchestra has its own audience. I would even go so far as to say that every Budapest orchestra has its own audience. Of course there are overlaps. Maybe I would draw a comparison with football, because everyone is supporting one team. With football of course, audiences are bigger, since far more people fit in a stadium than a concert hall, and of course, two sets of supporters meet up at a match. I simply do not believe there will be a day in Budapest, without there being two thousand potential concert goers.

The audiences of different orchestras meet at Polllini concerts, since they are not fanatic supporters of one side or the other, but music lovers.

Z. K.: – Of course, as I said, there are overlaps. Obviously the onus will be on the future leadership not to ignore the need for variety, however much they assume the seriousness of the institution. The more sophisticated examples from the current cross-over fad would certainly have a place in the programmes, certainly to liven up the choice. Variety is perhaps the magic word for guaranteeing that people with different habits, needs, ages and education get used to the venue.

Last year at the end of April, a new concert hall opened in Rome, the Music Park, which is the home of the Santa Cecilia Orchestra. It was inaugurated with 24 hours of serious and light music productions. So there at least, the lighter genres are not excluded from the concert hall…

G. K.: – We have long cherished a desire to present a Mozart concerto with Zoltán Kocsis conducting and playing the piano, and Chick Corea as the other soloist. Both are interested in the project but we have yet to agree a time. I refuse to believe that audiences wouldn't tear the house apart to attend such a concert. The Concertgebouw in its less happy days, hosted boxing matches and – even up to the sixties – fashion shows. We don't have to go that far, of course, but the concert hall could certain host the better examples of Crossover projects, or a couple of times a year, the folk galas organised by the House of Traditions. Again, concerts by a jazz artist like Béla Szakcsi Lakatos clearly have a place. The real question is continuous, large scale operation. And whether the many sponsors will be energise, who compared to the situation ten years ago are waiting with their rifles cocked! This year's Spring Festival proved that Hungarian concert organising has deep reserves. Given the opportunity, it can entice a host of world stars here. We don't need to invite people from distant lands to achieve this with great hocus pocus. Hungarian professionals with extensive foreign contacts are perfectly appropriate. Another very important factor is the extent to which the State seriously wants this to be one of the major cultural centres of the Central European region.

Z. K.: – I have less understanding of economic questions, but I am certain of one thing: although the Ministry is not a horn of plenty and the concert hall clearly cannot be allowed to become a money pit, without the Ministry putting up money, it has no hope of life. A State role is unquestionably necessary.

Péter Aradi

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