I believe I am one of the few who was not surprised when the internationally celebrated pianist Zoltán Kocsis moved across to the conductor's podium: I had never sensed such an orchestral sonority par excellence, such an orchestra fullness, in anyone else's piano playing. He has not just taken up the conductor's baton but in only a few years, breathed new life into a stagnant orchestra.
What impelled you to devote such energy alongside your career as a pianist to the revival of the ramshackle State Concert Orchestra (ÁHZ) when you could have been performing as a conductor with other Hungarian or foreign orchestras? Is it a sense of mission, to use a loaded term…
What impelled me? Basically music. Secondly I wanted to prove myself by reaching a world orchestral standard with an ensemble that was not supreme to begin with. It is not the situation now that we have one towering orchestra in Hungary and the others are “also rans”: a healthy competition is evolving between them and the ensembles should not feel that one of them is sitting in the “royal box” while the others are downtrodden. This can only be achieved through a healthy spirit of competition, through an elevated, professional rivalry. It was also exciting to take the orchestra as I found it, with its collapsed morale, its lukewarm work habits and its remarkable self-satisfaction, and create something that was the very opposite of how the poet Pilinszky characterised the middle-brow attitude, the “trivialising bluster,” which is how they basically behaved. The musicians had fibbed a world around themselves that simply didn't exist. They had to understand that results can only be achieved through work and that even the most talented musicians, even Mozart, needed to work constantly and to a daily work plan, as I do.
As to how this rebuilding would have succeeded with the old guard, we can't now say because after three years I got fed up with it all and decided we had to start changing personnel, even though this was not my original plan. I originally thought that the orchestra was full of talented people who would pull up the weaker musicians with them. In fact, quite the opposite occurred: during my time here, they ate them up! The weaker musicians destroyed the stronger ones, so there was no option but to radically alter who the orchestra employed. Although this sounds merciless, the solution was humane, since in the end there were only six people who put up protracted resistance through appeals to employment tribunals; in the meantime, a European level orchestra was created which not only laid something down on the table – and to no small degree – but guaranteed its capability to develop. Actually, besides widening the repertoire, the musicians are now much more efficient, able to achieve more with less work. This is determined by the intensity of the work, ergo if we have more rehearsal time, then we can prepare for a concert or expand our repertoire with greater thoroughness. In our latest concert, for example, we performed two works which are almost never performed: Richard Strauss's Burleske and Fauré's Ballada, both of which are piano concertos. These were placed alongside two better known works, Dukas's Sourcerer's Apprentice and Debussy's La Mer. During a rehearsal, I learn where the orchestra currently stands, seeing how it can sight read a work it has never played before.
You have now entered a new era because the National Philharmonic Orchestra has oved into its new headquarters at the Palace of Arts. Am I right in thinking that it was you that inspire the idea for the National Concert Hall?
I could easily wallow in the praise that it was me that suggested this, but it wasn't. It was something everyone wanted who had ever crammed onto the podium of the Music Academy to perform Mahler's First Symphony, not to mention larger ensembles. You have to realise that the Music Academy is a wonderful building, and so is its concert hall, but it was built for a teaching institution to provide somewhere for the music students to perform. It never occurred to anyone at the time that people would try and perform Mahler or Bruckner symphonies here. So it was the rightful need of not just the leaders of Hungarian musical life but all orchestral musicians that we could finally have a European level concert hall in Hungary that was suitable for performing large-scale symphonies and oratorios. Let's not get into how much of this is my merit, since recently I've been accused of demanding this hall for myself which is not just legal rubbish but de facto madness, since who can guarantee that they could fill such an enormous hall 365 days of the year with quality programs? When it was suggested that a committee should run it, I warned the relevant people that it will be very difficult and that they won't be able to avoid lighter genres, congresses, beauty competitions and events that do not exactly fit the criteria of classical concerts. So the accusation that I want to appropriate the hall for the National Philharmonic Orchestra is simply a lie, a piece of nonsense which I reject in the strongest possible terms. I also reject the accusation that I asked Viktor Orbán (Prime Minister 1998 to 2002) for money for the orchestra or for a new concert hall. I've not spoken with Viktor Orbán about this, in fact, I've rarely spoken with him in my life. The fact is that I tried to make the cultural ministry under Bálint Magyar understand (during the 1994-1998 government) that the money the orchestra then received was so meagre that it was not possible to expect true standards from them. It was also true though that it would have been highly risky at that time to give money to anyone, saying here it is, make a fundamental change to the orchestra, because we couldn't give any guarantee it would succeed, only my own talent, work capacity and ambition. Zoltán Rockenbauer (the second minister of culture in the Orbán government) had faith and events have proven him right: the money was well spent. Let me note that since then, they have continually been shaving down our income, and wages, and that we have undergone four examinations by the State Audit Office, which is proper because they want to know where public money is being spent. They have generally found the orchestra's affairs to be largely in order.
Now you have moved into this immense space, you have had to change your repertoire to some degree, you have had to redefine your original concept. Doesn't this perhaps represent a backwards step?
I haven't changed just to tempt in the audience: ultimately we have played so many non-conventional works in the past few years that the time has come to dwell on the conventional works as well. But it is also speaks volumes that the first piece to be performed inside the National Concert Hall was one of the lesser known Mozart symphonies; I don't know who else would have dared launched the hall with a Mozart concert. Many of those who came thought in terms of gigantic works and I must be honest and say that was my initial concept too.
Then I realised that this was an acoustic rehearsal, followed by others with various ensembles, and I believed that we had to program something that would show whether the sounds are coming from too far away, whether the hall is appropriate for a smaller orchestra as well. The opening concert and subsequent ones have demonstrated that this hall is not just suitable for what it was built for but at a stroke is now one of the best concert halls in Europe.
Hasn't contemporary Hungarian music been squeezed into the background a bit because of the new circumstances?
Absolutely not. We will be playing a Dubrovay work soon and one by Bozay. I'm increasingly being sent new compositions and considering that the old ÁHZ never played contemporary Hungarian works, we have performed a great many new ones. Even more so because our basic task is to nurture Hungary's music culture. However, I don't lower my own standards: many have an entirely uncritical attitude to performing new works. I myself, speaking as a composer too, know we have to find a balance between building up the orchestra and embracing new Hungarian music. I believe performing new Hungarian music has been the principal task of the Radio Orchestra and I hope they continue to fulfil this mission. We will continue to go our own way and this new concert hall offers us superb space…
(Magyar Nemzet, February 14, 2005)