The Spirit of Liszt Revived

Budapest, Hungary; October 22, 2013—In a speech given at the gala opening concert of the newly renovated Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suggested that the reason Hungary has been the source of so many great composers and musicians stems from the fact that small countries with difficult languages express their need to communicate to the outside world in the more universal language of tones. In this way, the Hungarian spirit has had an impact on Western culture out of all proportion to the country’s actual size. Franz Liszt founded his music academy in 1875 in his own Budapest apartment, but the main building dates from 1907. It’s a stunning art-nouveau structure that somehow survived two world wars, the rise of communism (where, thankfully, it was not turned into a laundromat or machine shop), and the Revolution of 1956. This fact alone attests to its importance in Hungarian, and indeed international, musical life. That said, over the years the structure fell into disrepair. Addressing the problem was made all the more complicated by the building’s incredibly elaborate and ornate architectural details. By 2003, when the first bids went out for a complete refurbishment of the facility, it was clear that something had to be done to preserve the Liszt Academy for the next 138 years.

One decade and some 14 million Euros (13.1 billion Forints) later, the newly renovated building has opened its doors once again. The festivities surrounding the Academy’s grand re-opening represented a moment of national importance, with live television coverage of major events in and around the facility. One highlight was the unveiling of a statue of Georg Solti, a graduate of the Academy. The late conductor’s wife was on hand for the ceremony, and she spoke very movingly of Solti’s exile from Hungary in 1938, when anti-Jewish laws forced him from his job as a rehearsal accompanist at the National Opera—perhaps a subtle hint at the darker side of current Hungarian politics as well. The statue itself is a modern design that surrounds a bust of Solti with the dynamic metal shapes of musical instruments bent into a circular pattern. Solti’s own famously angular arms and hands feature prominently, as do several extra sets of hands that the conductor’s detractors might suggest he actually used from time to time at more intense moments. Situated to the left of the building’s main entrance, the sculpture’s modernity does not risk looking out of place or discordant, and it was touching to see yet another Hungarian exile being welcomed home.

It truly is amazing to consider the number of “big name” international artists who have come through the Academy’s doors: composers Bartók, Kodály, Dohnányi, and Ligeti; conductors Fritz Reiner, Antal Dorati, Ferenc Fricsay, and of course Solti; pianists, violinists—the list seems endless, and the tide shows little sign of ebbing. The gala concert itself, held the evening of October 22nd in the stunning Grand Concert Hall, was necessarily a piecemeal affair, featuring a wide array of the Academy’s talent, and designed for live television broadcast. After the usual brass fanfares and patriotic preliminaries, the Academy’s own orchestra led off the program with Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, directed by violinist Barnabás Keleman. Keleman and partner Katalín Kokas also teamed up in a selection from Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violins. There was an interlude of genuine folksong, the study of which forms a major part of the Academy’s curriculum, as well as two exquisite children’s choruses by Bartók and Kodály led by choral director Gabriella Thész, plus a movement from Bach’s C major Cello Suite played by 15-year-old phenomenon Gergely Devich.

No Liszt Academy major event would be complete without music by the founder himself. In this case, pianist Gergely Bogányi flung himself at the composer’s Réminiscences de Don Juan, threatening to fly out of control at the concluding statements of the “Champagne Aria”. The always excellent Keller Quartet beautifully played the first movement of Dohnányi’s Op. 1 Piano Quintet, ably assisted by pianist Dénes Várjon (the piece is a gem, and if you don’t know it then you’re really missing something). Finally, Zoltán Kocsis led the orchestra, soloists, and chorus in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, with Gábor Farkas offering an alternately sensitive and fiery account of the extensive piano solos. The performance brought the evening to a suitably rousing and (one presumes) telegenic conclusion. As events of this type go, it was a well-assembled, highly varied selection of musical treats that showcased both the Academy’s talent and Hungarian music in a very convenient and enjoyable package. It’s also worth noting that the acoustics of the Grand Concert Hall are excellent, whether the performers consisted of full chorus and orchestra, or a single folk singer or cellist. Everything projected clearly, naturally, and with resonant warmth.

The renovation of the Grand Concert Hall is intended to serve not just the Academy, but as a fully functioning performance venue and concert destination for Budapest more generally. There is also a small chamber music recital hall that was restored and named after Georg Solti, in memory of his early days as a pianist. The entire complex has an ambitious series of concerts planned for the upcoming season, featuring symphony and chamber music programs spotlighting a diverse array of local and international talent. Along with a new building also comes a new website, which you can visit at www.zeneakademia.hu (for English click on the option in the upper-right hand corner of the home page). In short, and as you might have noticed, the events surrounding the restoration of the Liszt Academy represent the culmination of a truly huge project. That it was all accomplished at the time of the recent European economic crisis highlights the significance of music (of all kinds) in the cultural life of Hungary. The whole world now stands to benefit.