Modern Themes in Classic Budapest • Part I

Cynthia Albers

May 9, 2016

Budapest Spring Festival • April 2016

Stretching to the west and east of the great river that runs through it, Budapest is considered one of the visual jewels of Europe. Among its many World Heritage sites is Andrássy Avenue, the historic setting of the Franz Liszt home, the museum that bears his name, and the music conservatory he established in 1875.

Franz Liszt

Unshakably traditional at its core, this proud city continues to revere Liszt, the iconic Romantic-Era pianist and composer who, in his day, symbolized the highest striving of the Hungarian nation. Festivals served to perpetuate his legacy long after his death. But the city and its promoters have begun to revamp what defines Budapest in the modern world, projecting a cultural image that borders on international eclecticism; hence the allure of the 36th annual Budapest Spring Festival.

Szabadság bridge • facing the Danube west shore

Panoptic Production

Utilizing dozens of venues over the course of 17 days, the festival features more than 70 performances and exhibitions, including (but not limited to) jazz, opera, Baroque performance, world music, gallery art, Shakespeare and Edward Albee plays, modern dance, photography, Techno fusion, circus acrobatics, and, of course, the music of Franz Liszt. A multiform expression, the program defies the notion that a festival must be linked to a single theme, and acknowledges a broadly sophisticated audience, or simply, something for everyone.

Müpa Budapest • six dedicated arts venues

Precarious Premiere

Of the events attended, the performance I found surprisingly lacking—in fact, disappointing—was opening night. I attended the event heralded as the festival opener, although there were at least two other performances scheduled that same night at different venues. The first noticeable indication of an inaugural event gone wrong was the large number of empty seats inside the Béla Bartók National Concert Hall, the largest venue of the Müpa arts center.

Kim Kashkashian

Internationally acclaimed American violist Kim Kashkashian was to perform the Bartók Viola Concerto, accompanied by the Budapest Festival Orchestra led by American conductor David Robertson. But when applause for the concert opener subsided, it became clear that viola superstar Kashkashian was not there.

Julian Rachlin

Having canceled only days prior to the event, Kashkashian was replaced by Lithuanian-born Julian Rachlin, a first class musician, but one known primarily as a violinist and conductor. To the uninitiated, I will simply say that there is a significant difference between a dedicated viola soloist, of which there are very few, and a violin soloist who also plays the viola. Very few can manage a headlining twofold solo career, although Rachlin’s mentor, Pinchas Zukerman, was one who did. Bottom line, it was vital that Rachlin step into this performance, and he plays a beautiful 1791 Storioni, but members of the orchestra’s viola section exchanged tenuous glances.

Historical Redemption

Kashkashian’s commanding elegance was sorely missed, but Rachlin’s adventurous approach satisfied his listeners, and in my mind, justified his undertaking. Considering that Bartók never completed the viola concerto, his sketches were left unfinished at the time of his death and later pieced together by his student, Tibor Serly, it seemed befitting that an under-prepared soloist was positioned to give a courageous, edge-of-your-seat reading to the pages on his music stand, playing as if the ink was still fresh from the composer’s hand. There was drama and risk in the newness of each phrase, as approached by one who seemed not at all certain of what came next. The viola section seemed to hold its collective breath as Rachlin sped toward the upper reaches of his instrumental range, exhaling when each challenge was accomplished. In the end, Rachlin exchanged elegance for panache and the audience roared with approval.

Program Bookends

First on the program was the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Franz Liszt, and, suffice it to say, one has never really heard Liszt’s music until they’ve  heard it performed by a fervent band of Hungarians. Already familiar with the Rhapsody, I found this to be a freshly enjoyable performance — the principal cellist played so robustly that he lifted off of his chair.

The program ended with Harmonielehre (study of harmony) by the San Francisco Bay Area composer John Adams, featuring the stellar brass and woodwinds of the Festival Orchestra; but I did not stay. I had greeted the day somewhere in the air between San Francisco and Europe, and had used the last drops of reserve energy to run from my delayed Paris flight to the only Budapest plane that would get me to the evening concert on time. Considering the absence of Kashkashian, and a festival staff that had no idea she had been scheduled to perform (young ushers tripped over her name, saying Kim Kardashian … uh, Kashkashian?), I collected my thoughts and my disappointment and left at intermission.

Difficult to Replace • Maybe Next Time

© 2016 Cynthia Albers, all rights reserved

Next: Modern Themes in Classic Budapest: Part II

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