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Antal Szalai Interview

Antal Szalai – Performing with Heart

Hungarian violinist Antal Szalai was little-known to the music world, until he was proclaimed by Lord Yehudi Menuhin in Budapest as ‘one of the most wonderful young violinists I have ever heard,’ after hearing the 15-year-old artist’s performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto in 1996. Ever since, awards and competitions have propelled him into the career he had always dreamed of as a child. As he prepares for his début performance of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta, he talks to Patrick Lam on the afternoon of March 24th at the Hillview Café at the Stanford Hillview Hotel.

Patrick P.L. Lam: Is this your first time in Hong Kong and how do you feel?
Antal Szalai: Yes, it is my first time in Hong Kong and to perform in this city. I just arrived last night from Belgium, where I live, and jet-lag is still an issue for me. I just had a busy morning of rehearsals.

PL: Tell us a bit about the Tchaikovsky Concerto you’ll be performing with the Sinfonietta? What made you choose to perform this in your début here in H.K.?
AS: Like many violinists who perform this piece today, I will be performing the Leopold Auer version of the concerto (who was the dedicatee of this concerto). There’s an interesting story that goes behind this work [in many ways, similar to the legendary story of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, which was dedicated to Nikolai Rubinstein]. When Leopold Auer received his dedication from Tchaikovsky, he proclaimed that this work was unplayable, and refused giving its première. The première eventually was performed by Adolph Brodsky under the baton of Hans Richter. To bring a long story short, Auer eventually regretted his decision, and decided to revisit his dedicator’s composition. After some editorial changes to the movements, especially with a shortening of the third Movement, he only to found himself performing this work more than ever in the next 20 years of his career. I’ll be performing his edition, together with the Auer cadenzas. Though I have not got around in recording this concerto, I have been playing this publicly around the world dozens of times. The choice for me to perform this in Hong Kong with the Sinfonietta was a mutual decision, and it certainly fits ideally as a representative masterpiece belonging to the “Great Violin Concertos” series.

PL: Did you always want to become a violinist?
AS: To be honest, I was determined right from the very beginning to become a violinist. I didn’t see myself in any other profession. I grew up in a musical family – my father played the violin (and still does) for a Gypsy band, and my sister was a pianist. At a very young age of 5, I started on the instrument, and almost instantaneously, I had a strong affinity with the violin, and soon began my lessons with a local teacher in Hungary that lasted for about two years.

PL: Tell us more about your teachers. What were their influences to you?
AS: In Hungary, I studied with Mr. Laszló Denes in the Bela Bartok Conservatory till the age of 14, and later with Mr. Peter Komlos, who as you know, is the first violinist of the famous Bartók String Quartet for another 5-6 years. Both of my teachers in Hungary had a strong influence to shape the musicianship in me, and to define my style and approach on the violin in many ways. In simplistic terms, Mr. Denes taught me the aspects of performing as a soloist, whereas Mr. Komlos, because of his unique position in the Bartók String Quratet, taught me the essentials to perform as a chamber musician. Mr. Komlos was like a father to me. Incidentally, just last year, three of the four original members of the Bartók String Quartet (including Mr. Komlos) celebrated the Quartet’s 50th anniversary. I came to realize that they had been playing together nearly everyday for the last 50 years since their founding year in 1957. Can you believe that – that’s how much they love performing together!
In fact, particularly from my lessons with Mr. Komlos, I have inherited the great traditions of Zathureczky, Weiner and Kodály, so-called the Hungarian School. Even today, I consider myself under the so-called Hungarian Violin School, which is very different from, say, the Russian School. I am a devotee of the old great masters on the Violin – Leopold Auer, Nathan Milstein, Jascha Heifetz, and my absolute favorite, Leonid Kogan. If you ask me, what I wish the most, is to be able to go back in time, and live in Europe at the turn of the 20th century, a time when these violin giants were actively performing on the concert platform. I had the privilege to speak to a few reputable musicians who had the luxury to hear some of these grand masters on the violin, and from their accounts, I couldn’t but imagine what special treat it must have been to hear Auer perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. From what I have heard from this one surviving recording I have of Auer on the Violin, he must have been great. His book [Violin Playing as I Teach it] also recounts what a special violin teacher he must have been. I myself am a strong advocate on recordings, and believe faithfully on their value to entertain and to educate. In many ways, every time I listen to a recording of a old Master of this “Golden Age of the Violin,” for example an Auer performance, I could literally picture how he would bow his violin, how his fingers articulate on the strings, couldn’t help but to envy the golden tone he was able to project off his violin. Through recordings, and to this very day, I feel like they were indirectly my teachers. Their playing is a lost art, and to me, this adds on an extra value to the many treasured recordings of the “Golden Age”.

PL: You also studied briefly with Pinchas Zukerman in Manhattan School of Music, right?
AS: Yes, since a very young age, I was a fans of Pinchas Zukerman, and till today, I have great respects of him as a violinist. Unfortunately, having a lesson with Mr. Zukerman can be the most difficult thing, as he was actively concretizing around the world, and sometimes I would not be able to see him for weeks! As a result, in Manhattan, I had to study with his assistant many of times. But whenever he flies back to New York, I may sometimes have 2 to 3 lessons with him per week, but the only thing is: I can never anticipate when.

PL: Who are the individuals you would want to work with today?
AS: There are many artists I would like to work with. In particular, I am looking forward in the summer when I will be participating in Belgium in a summer festival, where I’ll be playing a lot of chamber music. Moreover, I have just received my first dedication - from a Norwegian composer by the name of Filip Sande. I hope to have the opportunity to record this work one day, but Mr. Sande has written a Violin Concerto for me. And, believe it or not, the concerto itself spans over 50 minutes in three movements!

PL: Have you considered taking a post on the podium, much like some of your peers have taken? Perhaps even teaching?
AS: Well, let me answer your second question first. Yes, I would love to start teaching, and though there are a handful of musicians who have sacrificed their concretizing career into devoting themselves entirely in teaching, I personally believe both concretizing and teaching could be mutually maintained, and certainly if I take up teaching, concretizing would still remain an active component in my career as a violinist.
About conducting, no, I don’t think I have the affinity to take up the baton on the podium yet. Unlike teaching, conducting to me is entirely a separate career. Although, again, there are numerous examples of pianist-conductors and violinist- conductors, I do not envision myself to have the skills to do the both equally well. Conducting requires a separate sell of skills, years of training separately, and at this moment, I do not have the intentions yet to forego my violin and to pick up the baton into a completely new territory.

PL: Can you comment briefly on your recording discography? I notice you have a peculiar choice in selecting your repertoire.
AS: Yes, my début CD was an album I made known as “Leo Weiner Album,” where I joined in collaboration with Janos Starker [on the cello] and Gyorgy Sebok [on the piano]. Unfortunately, Sebok already passed away. But Janos Starker, who must now be in his mid-80s, is still actively performing at times.

PL: Yes, and Mr. Starker is reputable for helping out on talented young artists, like Yourself.
AS: Well, I never had the chance to meet Sebök and Starker in person, but from what I have heard from colleagues, they are fun and interesting musicians to work with.

PL: Likewise, I really enjoy your Hungaroton recording of the Auer Rhapsodie Hongroise. What made you choose to record these works? What will be your next recording plans?
AS: Thanks! Like I said before, I am completely fascinated about Auer – both as a musician, teacher, and as a writer on Violin Playing. He is the direct ancestor of my teachers. At the present time, I do not have a recording contract anymore. In my home country back in Hungary, setting up a recording project with a record label is very different in practice than other parts of the world. In the latter, artists are signed by a record company for a duration in time, a definite number of years. In Hungary, artists sign with record company on a project-to-project basis.

PL: Perhaps you should consider starting your very own label, like many pianists have done recently [eg. Cyprien Katsaris, Johanna MacGregor, Jerome Rose, etc.]. That way, you can choose to record what you like.
AS: That’s not a bad idea; I have given that some thought, in fact. With record companies, they may reject your proposal of recording the Brahms’s Violin Concerto or Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto simply because there’s already a mile long of recording of the Brahms or Mendelssohn, way before yours. Sadly, it’s all about marketing, and packaging. If you do not look [appearance-wise] marketable, then sadly, you will find yourself in a difficult position finding a company to sign you for a contract. This is the sad reality.

PL: You have a large collection of repertoire – from Mozart to Glazunov, how do you find time to practice?
AS: I’m glad you mentioned the Glazunov; I’m actually going to be performing his Concerto next week in Germany (Berlin), and my parents are flying over to hear my performance. But yes, I generally try to find time to study a piece thoroughly before I perform it in the public. I usually practice from 3 to 4 hours a day, but whenever there is a particular work or particular technique I am trying to master, I may end up playing as long as 8-10 hours just to polish it. Summertime, for me, is a particularly good period for me to learn new repertoire, when I try to allocate more time at home focusing on new work and mastering new techniques.

PL: Do you usually find time in enjoying other aspects of Arts (like reading a good history book or interpreting a great piece of Art), in order to help in your musical development?
AS: What do you mean?

PL: In other words, do you try to find inspirations elsewhere to incorporate in your music-making, or do you only try to understand a piece of music from getting to know about a composer? For instance – Brahms’s Violin Concerto has what I would describe as a “Hungarian touch” in the third movement – do you try to find inspirations of these Hungarian folk themes by exploring your imagination through other Art forms or musical genres?
AS: Well, I won’t say that the Brahms’s Violin Concerto’s third movement is particularly Hungarian, at least that’s not how I would define it as such. There are certainly many other Brahms pieces that have a much stronger Hungarian influence in comparison. But I understand what you are trying to say, and of course, my musical interpretations come from various sources, both from other pieces written by the composer, as well as from outside of music through our subject areas. It is important for a musician to be an all-rounded artist, rather than just singly focus on one particular art-form.

PL: This brings me to two very final question. Jazz, I heard, is a peculiar hobby of yours. How did this come about?
AS: Yes, you are right, I am a hardcore Jazz fan, and I play the piano [and also the bass-guitar at times]. I am attracted to the rhythmic diversity that one easily finds attractive with Jazz. Keith Jarrett is one of those pianists who attracts me in Jazz as much as when he switches his identity as a classical musician. And Oscar Peterson, here’s a talent that comes only once in a century!

PL: I couldn’t agree with you more, having heard Peterson before his death last year. He in fact shared a concert a few years back with Martha Argerich in Toronto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Argerich played the Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.3 in the first half, and there we had, Peterson and his friends performing Jazz to a full-house crowd in Roy Thompson Hall. That was definitely once in a lifetime.
Finally, I think our readers would like to know from you: what would you consider as the most important qualities in helping to define an individual as a ‘great musician’ or great violinist?
AS: Haha… that’s a good question. I believe that a musician needs to have a good imagination, and a rich palette for technique and musicality. In a nutshell, a good musician is like a good violin: it starts first as a good piece of wood, and under the craftsmanship of its creator, the wood will eventually be carved and turned into an instrument that delivers the best of sounds possible. A musician is born with talents, but under nature and nurture of his/her teacher, the full potential of this musician could be unraveled. I, myself, wish my audience could enjoy the performances just as much as how I enjoy performing it to them. When a pianist or violinist [as an example] is able to convey this naturally to his audience, then, I would be reluctant not to describe him as a great musician.

Antal Szalai’s website

Patrick P. L. Lam



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