Who Are Concerto Budapest?
Violinist-turned-conductor András Keller tells KEN WALTON about the Hungarian orchestra he has reshaped and renamed.
There’s a force of nature winding its way north this week and due to descend on Edinburgh at the weekend. It’s not a much-needed summer heatwave. Prepare instead for Concerto Budapest. According to at least one review of its first ever UK tour, this relatively unknown orchestra is hot stuff. “Virtuosity was turned to emotional ends,” wrote the Times critic of last Monday’s tour opener in London’s Cadogan Hall, which has subsequently progressed to Guildford, Basingstoke, Birmingham and Manchester.
It’s a solid, powerful and popular programme that conductor András Keller and his 80-strong band will repeat in their final concert at the Usher Hall this Sunday, amply framed by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Mozart’s evergreen Piano Concerto in A, K488, and soloist Angela Hewitt, in the middle. But the questions many may be asking are: who exactly are Concerto Budapest; and isn’t Keller that eponymous lead violinist of the Keller Quartet?
The answer to the latter question is yes. After a successful career as a concert violinist and founder of his own string quartet, Keller turned to conducting with the opportunity in 2007 to become artistic director and chief conductor of what was then the Hungarian Symphony Orchestra, now destined to become, under his leadership, Concerto Budapest.
Why the name change? It was, says Keller, an essential rebirth brought about by the need to resist artistically damaging commercial pressure. Two years after he joined the orchestra, its former sponsor, Hungarian Telekom, withdrew its support. “They changed their image and began supporting more popular musical styles than classical music,” he explains. “The ensemble was on the verge of collapse, followed by a long period of existential uncertainty – the musicians worked for ten months without pay. Both they and I made enormous sacrifices for our survival.”
Eventually the government stepped in and took over the funding and Keller set about rebuilding the orchestra. “The ensemble wasn’t in particularly good shape, going downhill. I simply started to relearn with them the entire repertoire: in the first two years, Haydn’s symphonies and Mozart’s piano concertos; then we moved on to Beethoven. I am convinced that all symphony orchestras must stand on the foundation of the Classical period. You can only build on that.”
And built on that it has. Well-respected for its refreshed vision of the classics, but armed also with equal recognition for its all-round mastery of the wider repertoire, not least its close championing of the music of Hungary’s foremost contemporary composer György Kurtág, Concerto Budapest is beginning to make waves around the world. The current UK tour follows previously successful visits to East Asia and France.
For Keller, his mission hasn’t just been about repertoire. During his 15 years with the orchestra his prime focus – as you’d expect from a player steeped in the rarefied intimacy of the string quartet world – has been on developing a distinctive sound. “One of my goals is that instrumental music should sound like a single human voice through the many hearts and one unified soul of our musicians. If an eighty-member orchestra can play with one heart and one soul, it will be an extraordinary ‘transfiguration’ of music.”
Transfiguration is a term readily applicable to the two big orchestral works in Sunday’s programme, even one so familiar as Beethoven’s Fifth. “The very fact that it’s maybe the best-known of all compositions ever written makes it an even greater challenge for each and every one of us. It gets at us. I sincerely hope that our performance will contribute something valuable to the piece’s history.”
As for the Bartók, who better than a spunky team of Hungarians to tell it as it is, to put this colossal 20th century figure in pertinent historical context. Every time we play Bartók’s Concerto it is undoubtedly a tremendous musical feast for me,” says Keller. “I regard Bartók as Beethoven’s successor, and the Concerto and its ideal are an equal to Beethoven’s Symphony No.9, as it articulates similar ideas regarding man and the world.
“Let me quote Bartók himself on this: ‘My main idea, which dominates me entirely, is the brotherhood of man over and above all conflicts… This is why I am open to influence by any fresh and healthy outside sources, be they Slovak, Romanian, Arabic or other’.”
To have had Angela Hewitt as soloist in the Mozart – Edinburgh audiences know her refined, articulate style well – has, for Keller, been a mutually creative experience. “I particularly enjoy working with soloists with whom I don’t need to have lengthy discussions on the essence of the piece, where we can organically tune into each other and enrich one another in the performance. Angela is one of these artists.”
As one who once exclusively inhabited the performance arena, what was it that drove Keller to pick up the baton instead of the bow? “Most probably, such thoughts had been ripening in me subconsciously for quite some time,” he recalls.
“As a musician, I felt that I wanted to experience a wider spectrum of music than string quartets, which are wonderful in themselves, but I had always been deeply interested in the symphonic repertoire too. Since I had acted as a soloist, a chamber musician and the concertmaster of various great symphony orchestras, this change had a well-grounded personal musical history.”
While he still performs with his Keller Quartet, conducting is now number one preference for the 61-year-old. “To be frank, or rather I feel that in a certain sense, it is easier to lead a symphony orchestra than a string quartet. One thing is for sure: my past in chamber music greatly influenced my notions of the performance style of a symphony orchestra.”
Scots, should they venture to the Usher Hall on Sunday, can test for themselves how well he has succeeded.
András Keller conducts Concerto Budapest as part of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics series on 12 June at 3pm. Details at www.usherhall.co.uk