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The magical number 75 and the meeting of generations in classical music

According to some theories, the number 75 is an angelic combination, a reference of how something will change for us soon, bringing us to reach a goal and enrich our life. This magical number is connected to the concert on 23th September, 7:30 pm, by the Miskolc Symphonic Orchestra, part of the Müpa Discoveries series, in several ways. Conductor Mátyás Antal was our discussion partner on the topic of how the number and the concert belong together, on the pieces of music to be discovered at the concert, and also on how early career musicians can get along in the current situation.

What was the concept of the concert programme?

We were invited for a concert as part of the Müpa Symphonic season ticket series. I chose this date because it is close to my 75th birthday, so I thought it should be my birthday present after the long lockdown and the many cancelled concerts. Müpa recommended two soloists: pianist Ádám Szokolay and Austrian contrabassist Dominik Wagner. I asked Szokolay to play something by Béla Bartók, as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of his death this September. Dominik Wagner chose a piece by Serge Koussevitzky. Oddly enough, Anton Webern also died 75 years ago this September, so we also decided to play his lovely early piece called In Summer Wind.

Can we say Webern died among undignified circumstances?

Yes, it was a horrible incident. The war was already over, but in Austria, curfew was still on. Webern left his house to smoke a cigarette, and the smoldering ember was enough for an American soldier to shoot him.

The last piece of the concert is by Richard Strauss: Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.

I chose this one. With its character, rich orchestration and content, it’s a great dramaturgical counterpoint of the opening piece, the almost Pantheist-sounding one, by Webern.

The concert has no distinct title, the programme calendar only refers to the Miskolc Symphonic Orchestra. How would you call it anyway?

If I may, even the orchestra thinks of this concert as “Mátyás Antal 75”.

It’s part of the series called Discoveries. What can the audience discover at this show?

The piece by Anton Webern, sure. It’s wonderful music, the last one by the composer that didn’t receive an opus number. A work from his youth, he was only twenty when composing it. He wrote about it:

“This is already my own style”.

The subtitle is a reference to Wagner: “Symphonic Idyll for Orchestra”.

The other piece that Hungarian audience might theoretically know but it is practically very rarely played is the I. Piano Concerto by Bartók. It requires exceptional preparation and concentration by performers, it’s almost an ascetic piece, as if every musician were a percussionist to their own instruments.

There is also Koussevitzky, a Russian contrabassist and conductor who emigrated in 1920 after the Russian Revolution to France and then to the US, and then had a great career as the leader of the famous Boston Symphonics. The concerto which is played at our concert was still written in Russia after the turn of the century. He couldn’t have even denied his influences from Dvořák and Tschaikovsky.

Mátyás Antal. (c) Andrea Felvégi

The programme highlights the role youth plays in the concert: young musicians play the works of then-young composers. One can really feel the impetus motivated by that. How do you see young people’s chances in today’s world of music?

That’s a very hard and cross-cutting question, as I’m still enthusiastically teaching at the University of Music. Even if it was closed during lockdown, we were in a vivid email conversation. I don’t envy them. They are confused whether what they are doing is needed, whether their work will be respected enough in society. I keep motivating them: playing such eternal wonders like these pieces of music is a true sign of being chosen.

What is so different from the time when you were early in your career?

My career was harmonious; I always had the feeling that people are interested in what I’m doing. In those decades, classical music was more respected, but even after the regime change, I could feel we were needed. I’m worried now because the media is ready to serve a poor common taste. There are less and less quality quiz shows on television. Organising an audience is a pretty hard and responsible job nowadays, and it makes me happy to see full house at classical concerts. Symphonic music is a wonder that stole my heart when I was fourteen, and I want my students to feel the same magic.

Ádám Szokolay has played the piano since he was four, he has won many competitions and attended great Master’s courses.

I not only know Ádám but the whole Szokolay family. We are actually distant relatives, as my mother was also Szokolay. Sándor, a great composer, also taught me at the University of Music for a short time, and sometimes he jokingly called me his relative. I met Ádám at a rehearsal for this concert, and I liked him immediately.

I ask you as a university lecturer as well: how can musical education serve young people to let their talent bloom like in Ádám’s case?

That’s a dangerous game. Great talent shouldn’t be exhibited too early. Sometimes it seems like parents and teachers only serve their own ambition with a child prodigy, giving them too little space. But it’s not a general role that an exceptional child will be an exceptional adult. A good teacher, I guess, has to help the child to have a harmonious way of development, always under the given circumstances.

Dominik Wagner has played a lot with contemporary composers to have a more heterogeneous repertoire, as I read. Do you think contemporary music is useful for young musicians to support their careers?

It has an essential role, and the orchestra and I organise contemporary performances every year. Posterity will decide what should be remembered of, but we shouldn’t forget that at one point, Beethoven and Monteverdi were also someone’s contemporaries. We have great composers who come up with new pieces – I like them very much. Each of us who is active in this field should be obligated to play contemporary pieces. Dominik Wagner is a versatile artist with a very colourful career. I can’t wait to see him next week!

You learned to play the piano, the flute, the contrabass and some percussions. Does this make your conductor’s job easier or harder?

I have always thought that if one is interested in conducting, then the more instruments you know, the better. Nowadays, percussion is obligatory for students of conducting as a minor subject at the University of Music. I had to leave the contrabass behind relatively early, as my hand was too small. But I’m still happy to have an insider knowledge about the type of the instrument: it is essential. People usually don’t agree on whether a conductor is better as a pianist or an orchestra instrument player. I don’t think it can be decided, as there are good examples and arguments on both sides. This is a complex profession, that’s for sure.

How has your cooperation with the orchestra started?

In Hungary there are six symphonic national orchestras apart from the Budapest ones. Miskolc Symphonic Orchestra is one of them. My connection to them is peculiar. From 22 to 71 years, I had only one workplace: the National Philharmonics. In János Ferencsik’s time I was a flutist, then I directed the National Choir for 26 years. After retirement, once I was suddenly invited to jump in as an artistic director, and now I’ve been on their side for three years. In 1974, I also had a secondary job as assistant conductor in Miskolc due to former conductor Péter Mura. So I basically returned to them after 44 years and I love them very much; they are true friends to me.

Interview: Anna Rácz

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek