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Mara Gerety

The Magical Magyar

January 22, 2007 at 4:23 AM

In which I survive an audition (barely), meet Sydney, and get reduced to a giggling weak-kneed imbecile by the amazing Barnabás Kelemen.

Just two days ago, I was in Chicago for an audition at Northwestern. Everything was going well up until right before the actual audition--it turned out things were a good 10-15 minutes behind schedule. I had been all ready to play, and the delay shook my mental concentration and gave my nerves an excuse to rear their ugly heads. It all went straight into my right arm, and my bow started shaking. Ugh. I was also playing in a very small and acoustically dead room, which didn't exactly help anything. So, it could have been much worse, but it sure could have been better. Yuck.

Well, to heck with that. Yesterday my mom and I flew to Kansas City, which is kind enough to be located directly between Tulsa and Chicago, with tickets to the symphony safely stashed in our purses. Barnabás Kelemen, the Great Hungarian Violinist of our time, heir to Auer, Bihari, Joachim, Reményi, Hubay, Szigeti, Szekély and all the rest, not to mention winner of "the Indy" in '02, was to be playing the Sibelius concerto that very night with the KC symphony.

Thanks to some e-mailing back and forth with KC resident and fellow v.commie Sydney M., I knew that there was going to be a pre-concert talk, also that Barnabás was going to be signing his CDs at intermission. :) Actually, it was at the counter where they were selling the CDs that I met Sydney! It was the first time I've ever met any of you v.commies in the Flesch, as it were (*groan*...sorry, bad pun...), and it was, I'll admit, slightly strange at first. :) But any traces of awkwardness quickly evaporated as we scrambled for front-row seats to the pre-concert talk. (We ended up in the fourth row.)

After a few minutes, out walked conductor Michael Stern, and some guy with a microphone. (Sorry, microphone guy, I can't for the life of me remember who exactly you were.) And right behind them was Barnabás!! (I'm afraid I may have let out an excited little squeal when I first saw him, as if I was a dumb pop-group fangirl or something--slightly embarrassing, but don't worry, it was pianissimo.)

The first thing he talked about was his violin. It is a Guarneri del Gesu from the 1740s, made around the same time as "Il Cannone" and the "Heifetz". This particular one is the "ex-Kovács Dénes", named for its previous violinist, and it officially belongs to the State of Hungary. Traditionally, it has been given to whoever is the best violinist in Hungary for the duration of his/her career, but recently they changed the rules. Now, if Barnabás wants to keep the violin, he has to audition every five years so they can decide whether to let him keep it or give it to someone else. (Which raises an interesting question--if the State of Hungary gets to decide, who on earth does Barnabás play the audition for? The Prime Minister? Does he stand in the middle of Parliament and play solo Bach as they debate new laws and referendums?)

The really interesting story about that violin was this: apparently, soon after Barnabás got it, he was teaching one of his students over at the Akademia, they were working on the Brahms. At one point, Barnabás was demonstrating a certain passage, and all of a sudden he noticed that the violin was practically playing itself, and the Brahms sounded different than he'd ever played it before. In his words: "I heard this incredibly beautiful sound, and I just thought "where is this coming from?" When I realized what it was I got tears in my eyes. The violin was talking to me, and Dénes Kovács was talking to me through the violin." Apparently it was like that for a few days, and then it went away and Barnabás was able to play his Brahms. The same thing happened with the Beethoven concerto. He then mentioned that in Hungarian, the word for "soundpost" is lélek, which also means "soul". :)

Sydney has already mentioned the guy in the back who said "How OLD are you?!" when Michael opened the floor for questions, but I still think it was funny, the guy sounded so bewildered. The answer? 28. Egad, if only I could play like him ten years from now...

The orchestra started off with Ives' Three Places in New England, which they played very well. I enjoyed it. Michael spent about five minutes beforehand explaining the piece, warning how weird it is and practically apologizing for the dissonance, but the day before I had sat through two hours of listening to the Northwestern orchestra rehearse Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra, and next to THAT atonal mess, the Ives sounded like a cute little American folk tune.

Then, with a great loud noise, the Ives was over. After the audience had finished clapping, there was a brief silence full of anticipation, then the stage door opened and Barnabás Kelemen strode out looking as dashing as a Hungarian hussar in a long black coat with a red satin tie and cummerbund. Everyone held their breath...

...the orchestra began playing. Barnabás nonchalantly tucked his violin under his chin, brought the bow to the string....

...I'm not quite sure how to describe the opening. He didn't bother trying to make it sostenuto as many other people do, and he played some notes with vibrato and some without. The melody seemed to form itself out of mist and thin air, moonlight set it aglow, a note would evaporate into the next as ethereally as it began, melting and vanishing and changing colors. Shadows flitted about in the distance. It was all quite supernatural.

Then came the cadenza and the main body of the movement. No more mist and moonlight, this was gutsy, fiery, and passionate in a way I've never heard anyone play before. During the pre-concert talk, Michael Stern related a piece of advice that his father, Isaac, had once said: Don't play to impress the crowd, don't play "outside of yourself." If you do that, there is nothing there at the center of your playing and you can't communicate anything to anyone. Rather, hold the violin close and remember why you love the music you play, then play for yourself and within yourself, not trying to "impress". If you do that, you will impress everyone.

And that's what Barnabás did. No superficial fireworks here, no moments of complacency or autopilot. Sometimes when I listen to even some of our greatest soloists (no names need be named here), I get the impression that sometimes, especially in these old warhorses, that they're just going through the motions. "I've played this a million times, you've all heard it a million times, blah blah blah, isn't this nice, etc." Not Barnabás. The way he played, you would think it was a brand new concerto. Everything was so fresh, so alive, so full of energy and emotion! And best of all, even with an interpretation that personal and unique, he never went outside the boundaries of good taste. In that way, actually, he reminds me of Szigeti. In terms of overall temperament they are miles apart, of course, but the similarity lies in their ability to play with complete individuality and artistic freedom, but also with taste and fidelity to the composer's own individual voice. Really, it was just brilliant.

For an encore, he was kind enough to play one of the pieces I'm playing at all the rest of my auditions next month, Bach's d minor Sarabande. It was absolutely beautiful. He threw in some very effective (if surprising) improvisatory little ornamentations in the repeated sections, one of which was the same one I sometimes do, and it's one that I picked up from Sergiu Luca's recording. (Later I looked at his bio in the program, and sure enough, Barnabás has worked some with Luca. Don't you just love how everyone connects together somehow or another?)

Well, I could go on, and write about how Sydney and I were both reduced to giggling, blithering idiots when we met on the staircase right at the beginning of intermission, how we waited around for what felt like forever (it was probably five minutes), and how when Barnabás finally showed up, I suddenly started yammering away in my halting, fractured Hungarian, or about how my accent must not be as bad as I thought because he understood what I was saying, or about what a sweet person he is, or about how he patiently posed for picture after picture with us (as picture after picture came out gross--see Sydney's blog).

But I'm going to stop writing now, because it's the middle of the night and I'm tired. I had to get up at 6 AM this morning to catch my flight back to Tulsa. The combination of sleep deprivation, the stress of travel and auditions, and a lingering high from the concert left me staggering around like a drunk, confused, grumpy, not watching where I was going, and mumbling "köszönöm" instead of "thanks" to all the flight attendants. Oh, and I almost got my damn lipstick confiscated at security--weird new rules! (Thankfully, a *female* security guard rescued me.) So anyhoo, this concludes my second-ever blog. :) Good night Sydney, good night Barnabás, good night violinist.com, good night airport officials.......zzzzzzzzzzz

From Anne Horvath
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 1:35 PM
I bet your audition was better than you think. Stress tends to amplify self-consciousness.
Also, "just going through the motions" is called "phoning it in".
Good luck with the rest of your auditions!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 2:38 PM
Oh, Maura, this was so beautifully written - I'm there, baby, I'm right there.

Very cool. And great fun to read both yours and Syd's rendition of the same evening. A true three-dimensional (well... two) view of the performance.

Thanks for sharing your impressions. Would LOVE to hear this guy.

From Karin Lin
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 5:30 PM
Awww, what a great report, Maura! I was really touched by your description of his violin. So glad you got to meet Sydney "in the Flesch" (hahaha); isn't she great? That's awesome that you got to speak Hungarian to Barnabás, too; I bet he didn't expect to find that in Kansas City! Thanks for sharing with us.
From Elizabeth Smith
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 5:49 PM
Nice writing in your blog-- keep it up!

TSA agents in different cities are inconsistent about what they confiscate. They're not supposed to take away lipsticks and chapsticks anymore, but I've seen people arguing with them about exactly that.

From Sydney M.
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 9:48 PM
Great writing, Maura! No wonder I thought you were older than you are ;)

What did you think of the symphony/Stern?

Yes...meeting you in the "Flesch"... hahaha! Didn't think of that one.

From Sydney M.
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 10:05 PM
PS - "The guy with the microphone" ;) was symphony director Frank Byrne.
From Linda Lerskier
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 11:25 PM
Love it Maura! Your writing is so good that I can't believe your so much younger than I thought.

xD The last paragraph was great. I had a good laugh just imagining you "staggering around like a drunk." Not the first time I imagined a v.commie doing it though. *cough*

From Maura Gerety
Posted on January 22, 2007 at 11:51 PM
Uhh...thanks for all the compliments on my writing, but rest assured that I sound utterly ridiculous in my e-mails to my music-nerd friends from various summer camps--I end up writing stuff like "OMG, you will, like, SO not believe what Brahms said to Franzi Liszt in Weimar this one summer, LOL!"
From Emily Grossman
Posted on January 23, 2007 at 9:13 AM
Hey, where were you when I was in Oklahoma? We could have crossed paths!

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