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A musical journey to Pangea – musician Kálmán Oláh is 50!

Kálmán Oláh, pianist and composer, has a concert in the Müpa to celebrate his 50. birthday. For Müpa, it is also a celebration of its 15. anniversary, so they requested a special piece from Kálmán Oláh, which will be played here for the first time: its title is Return to Pangea. The musician who brings together jazz and classical music elements will be playing with star guest John Patitucci. We talked about a 35-year-long timespan of his musical career, but of course, also the upcoming concert.

You are 50 this year. A good time to look back. What do you think about your career up to this point?

I do not have anything to complain about. I have been acknowledged many times, not only with prizes but I also think of how God or destiny gave me so many chances to thrive as a composer and performer. Since I was fifteen, I have been on stage, and that is 35 years by now. Apart from the last half year, I gave many concerts. And even though there has been this pandemic, I could celebrate the start of my special year with a huge concert at the University of Music Budapest with violinist József Lendvai and pianist János Balázs. And now I can celebrate again, on 27th October in the Müpa, under great circumstances, with extraordinary musicians.

It seems like you have a friendly relationship with your collaborators.

Yes, and not only with the Hungarians but with John Patitucci. We have worked together a lot, including two albums that feature both of us. One is Szakcsi Generation with Jack DeJohnette and John Patitucci, with the last two creating a possibly best rhythm section in the whole world. In this album, my cousins, the Szakcsi brothers, and my godfather Szakcsi Sr. can be heared as well. Another time, Patitucci and I played in New York, with a concert recording and an album, so we have been through a lot together and we are on friendly terms.

There are other great musicians and the Óbuda Orchestra listed as well.

I have played with that orchestra many times as well. Our latest concert was in the Chateau Esterházy where we played my pieces related to Haydn. They will be played in Budapest for the first time during my birthday concert. I also played with the Óbuda Orchestra at my latest author’s night in the Müpa with Joshua Redman as guest. László Kovács was, and also will be this time, the conductor. We are old friends and colleagues, I guess he inspired most of my orchestral pieces in the sense of working on his requests. Elemér Balázs and I have the longest friendship as we know each other from childhood, long before we entered the music industry. We played together even before I started to study jazz, so he has practically been my partner since I was fifteen, and he is the drummer in many of my formations. But my birthday is not the only reason to celebrate: one of my bands, Trio Midnight, is 30 years old, and Müpa is 15. The pandemic slightly changed the programme, Tony Lakatos could not travel to us so he will not play, replaced by the Kálmán Oláh Sextet. With contributors Mihály Borbély, Ferenc Schreck, Kristóf Bacsó and my son Kálmán Oláh Jr., we will form a septet with John Patitucci and Elemér Balázs. My symphonic pieces will be played by the Óbuda Orchestra, the rhythm section and Kristóf Bacsó. Let us hope that John’s travel can happen smoothly.

How did you write the new piece which features in this concert programme and was requested by Müpa?

The above-mentioned 15-year jubilee gave the idea to Müpa that I should write a symphonic piece to premiere at this concert. Its title is Return to Pangea, which refers to a lot of things. To restart, to past, to our roots, and one can reflect on how there was no division through the oceans on that one Pangea. In a figurative sense we were closer to each other. This is also a reference on today’s diversity, the globalisation, and the post-Pangea wandering of the continents which is a symbol of constant change in our world. The piece lasts 20 minutes, written for a jazz quartet and a symphonic orchestra. I am also very excited about how it is supposed to sound, as I am going to hear it in this form during the rehearsals before the concert.

How has your work been with the Müpa?

Our cooperation has a long history. I might have had my first author’s night in 2006, with world stars and guests and we played a piece written for symphonic orchestra. Since the Müpa opened one and a half decades ago, I have had recurring concerts there, and I think all musicians of Hungary can be proud of an institution like this, being a professional supporter of younger and older talents alike. It does not even restrict the genres, as anything valuable and high-level can be on its stage.

You often link jazz to classical music. How did you find this connection between two genres that sound like antagonists at first sight?

My goal has been for long to create a synthesis where the listener does not think about when they hear jazz and when classical music. I strive for a genre that have both as equals. Feedback from symphonic musicians is very important for me, and I can say that my determination pays off. After concerts they say that they enjoyed it very much and the piece was also a challenge for them, as they are there not only as the musical accompaniment for the jazz musician but in an equal role. That is exactly the aim: the genres should not be in concurrence but in a synthesis.

The concert has the title Modern Renaissance. Rebirth can have many meanings in these times of the pandemic, like the audience getting back to concert halls after a long time – or do you rather think of a renaissance of jazz?

It is a reference to both and also to the observation that forms and stylistic elements are reborn in the performance of jazz musicians. In the synthesis I am striving for, known soundings of classical composers are mixed with styles taken from the big jazz stars. And alongside that, it is a rebirth of certain topics, like I have a piece that is based on the piano sonatas of Haydn, played in a symphonic way, but with the topics converted, and a new composition was born that draws on elements from Haydn’s themes. Another one of my works, a baroque musical variation form, Passacaglia for Orchestra & Jazz Trio will also be played as a mixture of jazz variations and contemporary musical variations. That is also a kind of reborn.

You mentioned in the beginning that you have been playing on stage since you were fifteen. What brought you to the genre of jazz?

I am equally fond of classical music and jazz. The discipline of a composition and the form creation is just as interesting as composing spontaneously. Improvisation is a creation of form and composing in an extraordinarily rapid way. I’m a teacher at the jazz faculty at the University of Music Budapest. Some of my students want to be composers and others pianists. I usually tell them to learn each other’s art in a parallel way, as the two domains support each other and stay very close. No surprise that although as a child I ran away from the classical piano lessons, being a lazy child who rather played football outside, but I also started to improvise for fun, and jazz brought me to the realisation how good it is to live in music, to create in music, to improvise. But it is crucial for that to study and get to know classical music literature. So these two parts complemented each other for me since my childhood, triggered by jazz coming to my life. I was enchanted by the artistic freedom in jazz, which is also present in classical composing, but for the latter you need to be disciplined. Both are very important for me.

Jazz is sometimes a very playful and humorous genre. Will that be present at this concert?

Yes, it will be part of the improvisations, but maybe even in the compositions, depending on what the given piece is about and what atmosphere it has. There are many composers whose pieces have a lot of playfulness, and even some classical music compositions – like the piano sonatas of Mozart – can be only played well if we can be as easygoing and cheerful as if we were composing it at that very moment.

What other plans do you have for the rest of the day, and do you think we will be able to have a traditional season of music in the following year?

I can only hope for that. I believe in God and trust Him to make everything better in the end. This is my last big concert this year, I have nothing more prepared, unfortunately. All of my performances have been cancelled for the rest of 2020, so I’m happy that this Müpa concert can still happen. Some of my concerts are postponed from this year to next, like one in Stockholm in one of the most famous European jazz clubs. I also planned a joint concert with my sons for my 50th birthday which would have happened in Pécs in the House of Arts, but that will happen next year as well. But even if they are concerts dedicated to my own birthday or the 30th anniversary of the Trio Midnight, it is still understandable to celebrate them later due to the pandemic.

What can audience expect from your birthday concert?

If they want to join us for a kind of a musical journey, they should definitely come, especially these days when we are not allowed to travel too much anyway. Let us go on a trip with the help of music, maybe even to Pangea. This will be a night of musical time travel.

Interview: Anna Rácz

Translation: Zsófia Hacsek