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Jacqueline Vanasse

Barnabás Kelemen's fantastic premiere of Nádor’s Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall

June 19, 2013 at 3:01 PM

On May 2nd at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra presented a concert entitled “Hungary Torn." The program included works of Hungarian Jewish composers who suffered or died in concentration camps during the Second World War. One could have expected a dark depressing evening, oozing with pain and incomprehension, but on the contrary, irreducible vibrant sparks of beauty and hope were felt throughout the concert. This feeling culminated with violinist Barnabás Kelemen’s world premier of Mihály Nádor’s concerto (1882-1944). The Heifetz-style performance was simply fantastic! It turned out to be more ecstatic than any Tchaikovsky, Brahms or Shostakovich I have heard lately. Euphoric, the audience couldn’t stop applauding after the first movement or the following movements.

“This reaction is very similar to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw premiere of Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto,” the violinist said honored after the concert. The next morning, I had the chance to meet Barnabás Kelemen at the Hungarian Consulate. We discussed the reasons that brought him to Carnegie Hall and we talked about music in general and Hungarian music in particular.

Barnabas Kelemen playing at Carnegie Hall

Barnabas Kelemen ended up at Carnegie after receiving a call from violist Peter Barsony a year before. Barsony, also a soloist at the Carnegie Hall concert, did some research and discovered several forgotten gems of Hungarian music. Leon Botstein, American Symphony Orchestra’s conductor and an enthusiast and expert of lost works, loved the idea.

At first, Kelemen did not take the concert for granted, thinking deep inside himself that it was too good to be true and that in the end something might go wrong. A digitalized manuscript of the Nádor Concerto was sent to him in the fall, but the violinist didn’t have time to look at the score right away. Although usually very quick at learning new works, he says it was fortunate that he started studying the Nádor early February. It took him a month just to be able to play all the notes in tempo.

“It was so difficult, it was quite an adventure!” he exclaimed. Nádor was himself a violinist and wanted to write a virtuoso concerto, “and it works!” smiled Kelemen. The Hungarian composer wrote the first movement in 1907. He went on to perform it as a piece for violin and piano but ultimately had to confess that he couldn’t play it himself and had to cancel the concert.

“It’s a lot of challenges in every way of the violin playing," said Kelemen, “like other virtuoso concertos, it’s fast, and it has many notes to play in a short time, both in the left hand and in the right hand. There are virtuoso concertos not so deep musically that when one learns to play the notes most of the job is done. But the Nádor has a lot to say musically and can already be compared to the Korngold, Goldmark, Walton or Elgar Violin Concertos.” And indeed, the beautiful forgotten work was reminiscent of Vieuxtemps, with something very Beethovenian and a twist of Hubay. It had a lot to say. The passage of time tells us what music is important; I am looking forward to seeing what kind of place this piece will take.

To play Hungarian music, recommends Kelemen, especially Bartók or Kodály in the Hungarian style, one should study the Hungarian language, the general basics of it, listen to folk songs and to Bartok playing, which is an amazing musicological source in itself. He also feels that it is important to understand the basics of Hungarian history.

“Be aware of the history to see how much we suffered and we always suffer. If we don’t suffer from outside problems, like today, then we suffer from each other. But we have to suffer from something," he said. According to the violinist, together with their very unique language, their depression is what keeps Hungarians thinking how things could be better, and keeps them improving.

When I asked how the Hungarian music scene is today, Barnabas Kelemen answered that it’s neither better nor worse than anywhere else. There are ups and downs, but about 8 years ago Hungary built the beautiful and world-wide unique Palace of Arts in the capital. With its huge concert hall, its big theater and big museum, it is now the home of the National Philharmonic, the National Choir and the music library.

Next October, Budapest will see the opening of the newly renovated Franz Liszt Academy, a building over 100 years old. According to Kelemen, it will be absolutely stunning. In addition to that, his wife, Katalin Kokas, also a violinist, created a chamber music festival: the Kaposfest. “It is really going very well!” said Kelemen proudly. And proud he can be! The Kaposfest, which will feature violinists Alina Ibragimova, Feng Ning and Vilde Frang, among other extraordinary musicians for its 4th edition this summer, also saw Joshua Bell open the festival the first year.

Although proud of his Hungarian roots, Barnabas Kelemen likes to say that regarding music he “eats” everything from early baroque to 21st Century music. In the future, he would like to premiere Nádor’s Violin Concerto at home in Hungary, and eventually to record it. In England this coming year, he will play the English premiere of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Violin Concerto and the Penderecki Violin Concerto. In addition to that, he and his String Quartet will be very active during the next seasons with a six-week tour in Australia and New Zealand, tours in Europe, festivals in Ireland, England and Italy, and a US tour with their Carnegie debut. The ensemble will also be ensemble-in-residence at the Palace of Arts for the next spring. Eventually, they would like to invite a guest artist such as Joshua Bell to play string quintets since their second violinist and violist often exchange roles. Not to mention a project with ballet dancers or a filmmaker who would create some visual artwork. Apart from performing around the globe, Kelemen teaches chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy. He started studying conducting privately in Finland with two great masters Maestro Panula and Segerstam, and has lately conducted Bartok’s Second Violin Concerto and Beethoven’s 8th Symphony in Transylvania - Romania.

Some days ago I told my grandmother about the concert on the phone. She has attended every Queen Elisabeth competition for years, and Kelemen, winner of the third prize in 2001, is still her very favorite competitor, along with Vadim Repin. After keeping silent for a while she said: “It is worth living for moment like that, no?” In fact, it was worth it. And somehow it was what the concert was all about: something worth living for, great people sharing great music.

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