Beáta Seres | 22 June 2011, 11:30
− You have been giving a performance during the week of the POSZT in the past years, and as far as I know you like spending time in the city anyways if you have a chance. Is there any special reason behind it?
− I have many friends living in this city and one of my most cherished childhood memories also ties me here. I was 13 when I came to Pécs to view some organs. I came to Pécs because this used to be the organ capital of Eastern Europe: the famous Angster organ factory was here that produced such an unbelievable number of organs that it provided around half of the organ park of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. They had a great number of relics here which excited me a lot. The first day I was here I entered the Ferences church where an extremely friendly organist; Dénes Fábián seated me to the organ, had me play and then said „stay with us”. Thinking back now I can hardly understand how it could happen but it did: those beautiful three months in Pécs during which I had the chance to meet countless organs and elderly organ builders. This wondrous person admitted me to his family for those three months and introduced me to everyone who was still alive from the old Angster factory. That was a fantastic period in my life also because I had a chance to thoroughly explore the inside of the instruments. Later, I must have been around 16, when a senior friend I had full respect for, Dr Endre Bán asked me to give him my opinion on the organ of the Pius Church where he served as a priest. I suddenly ran out of breath, because other than giving it a thorough cleaning I would not have touched that magnificent instrument, but the kinship-based organ-clan living in the city at that time wanted to rebuild the old pipes fundamentally. It seemed they would succeed. Coincidence came to my rescue. It was exactly during those days that the greatest master organist, Jean Guillou – I had already met in Paris before - was giving a concert in Pécs. I asked him to find a little time before his concert to give an opinion on the Pius’ organ. The legendary Frenchman climbed through the dirty musical instrument in his stage tail coat. When he came out, prebendary Bán – with the sheet of paper given to him by the organ clan – asked him in French: „Well, dear master, what shall I buy for the organ?” Guillou’s simple answer was the following: „A vacuum cleaner and a ladder. This piece is just beautiful as it is.”
− Your interest for the instrument, however, dates back to even earlier times I assume if you came to Pécs specifically because of the organs.
− My uncle, Egon Varnus was a famous chess player; an international grand master. He was the one wearing the well-creased pants in the family: he read a lot and his shelves were tottering of book rarities and special records. Since he was living in the same family mansion I did with my parents I sneaked over to his place evening by evening to listen to records. One night when I visited him with my father when I was about 5 and a half years old my father accidentally picked the wrong record. I noticed the picture on the cover that was a medium completely unknown to me: a great Dutch cathedral, the St. Michael’s Cathedral in Zwolle. Up until that point in my life I had never been to a church, at least I do not remember it. I saw a huge gothic pile of stones at the bottom of which an organ was glowing with some uncanny, dark and demonic-blue flare. I told my father that was the record I wanted to listen to, he replied unbelieving that it would not interest me. I do not know why but I started sticking to my guns stubbornly: these are such indescribable moments that drive our destiny and we just simply cannot evade. He put the record on and I listened to it. Then for a second and a third time… I was six years old and I saw such a world appear in front of my eyes that I started drawing only organs. I wanted to be an organist at the age of 6. I still want to be an organist today. Sometimes when I am listening to the concert of some of my colleagues I feel that I have succeeded. On the other hand when I stay alone with Bach at night, I start having my doubts: how impossible this enterprise is compared to his overwhelming genius…
− Did you start learning to play the instrument early then? If my calculation is right, your childhood years coincided with an era that did not particularly favour the traditional church genres in this part of the world.
− Furthermore, the primary school in Kőbánya, Budapest where I went stood right next to the communist party committee’s headquarters and they wanted to make a model school out of it. It was an incredibly modern building with a beautiful wainscot panelling inside. I sat by the wall, wrote the name of the different tones of the organ on each thin piece of the wainscot panels, I painted the keys on the desk and ’played the organ’ on the board all afternoon. I started learning to play the organ soon too, so after school I walked over to the Kőbánya St. Laszló church; the building miracle of Ödön Lechner made of Zsolnay porcelain and continued playing music there. I was around a 6th grader when a very strange thing happened to me: I still have the feeling it was intentional. The whole school new that I regularly went over to the church to rehears and some unapproving sentences were uttered relating to my habit by the stricter teachers who were friends of the regime. The principal, who was a 1919 communist veteran and the untouchable greatness of the political party, appeared one day in the classroom and directed every student to the church saying: “we are going to listen to how Xaver plays the organ”. For the most of the children, who had not had the chance to visit such a place before a magical world opened up, and those who had been looking at me like a cow at a five barred gate, I felt, started respecting me. It was clear that they would have risked their lives to protect me and Bach against anyone. In other words the principal took me under her patronage that day. No one had the guts to say a bad word to me ever again and I could go and practise with impunity every day.
− So you owe thanks to your principal’s unbelievable pedagogic and diplomatic senses for the opportunity to practise in peace, which means that she had a great indirect role in you becoming who you have become. How has your audience changed in the past few decades?
− In the 70s and 80s the Mathias Church of Budapest was giving full house organ concerts, no matter who was playing you just simply could not get inside. After I have arrived home from Canada in ‘89 my first and strangest experience was that the genre I remembered as a successful one was gone from the mirageful Hungarian reality. As I was searching for a cause I guess I have found it in a tiny sociolinguistic phenomenon. Whenever someone was going to a piano concert the person always added that they were going to listen to Annie Fischer or Mihály Bächer. On the other hand when they listened to an organ concert they only said that they were going to Mathias Church to an organ concert. They did not consider who was playing, that was not an issue. Visiting the church organ concerts in an ideologically isolated world, I am not saying was open rebel, but certainly an accepted manifestation-form of thinking differently. People did not visit these programmes because they were so fond of organ music, but because during these instances they could become part of the mystery of an alien world. Following the change of the political regime when the Hungarian people realised that the formula they had believed in previously, that is: communist party official=evil, bishop=angel, was not necessarily true, the magic of visiting church organ concerts was gone. At the beginning of 1990 I saw that if I wanted to achieve something I had to create the genre from scratch. So everything started between 1990 and 94 when I paved the way for such an organ audience we still live off today.
− Did you employ any conscious and personalized marketing in order to reach your goal to have the public visit organ concerts following the names of performers?
− I should not be using such great names, but since it is his year I have to draw a parallel with Ferenc Liszt. Pianos existed in the world practically since the 1750s, people were even playing them here and there in smaller or greater get-togethers, but the genre of piano concert was created by Ferenc Liszt when he played solo from the start to the end of an event. The funny thing is that he did not achieve the myth surrounding him by playing the piano. It is still arguable to what extent was he the creator of the myth and how far was he only a pebble that made the water ripple but it is certain that no matter where he travelled in Europe his performances were welcomed by mass hysteria. Great crowds followed him around and women were fainting in the first rows – according to some sources the fainting ladies actually cost Liszt a lot of money because he was using stooges. The thing was working well and the first paid fainters were followed by volunteers. Liszt gave no more concerts after the 60s. The members of the next great generation who would have liked to have followed Liszt in his footsteps; even though they were magnificent pianists could not achieve such a success. While Liszt made a common issue out of playing the piano and the leading dailies were headlining his concerts and his well-known love affairs, the second generation who played fantastically and consisted of marvellous musicians were forced back into the concert halls with their assorted public. In a sense this is what I am witnessing right now because in the past 20 years I have created a frantic festival atmosphere around the organ; I have done everything that was possible with this instrument and its partner genres. Unfortunately I cannot see that young charismatic figure who would take my place and the genre from me one day. There are good organists, what is more, there are excellent organists around. But that is not enough. You have to have a charismatic personality that is able to control its public in a sovereign way – at least for that one and half hour the concert lasts.
− In 2006 the public was awaiting the grand organ of the MüPa (Palace of Arts in Budapest) with anticipation. The instrument that you inaugurated was built by the consortium of the German Mühleisen and the Pécs Organ Building Manufacture. How do you assess the outcome?
− The organ of MüPa is a carefully built and excellent instrument. For someone used to playing only in Hungary it is heaven itself. On European level it is slightly larger than the average, following the Western European quality like those we can find dozens of to the West of Nickelsdorf. It is an interesting coincidence that one of the owners of the Pécs Organ Building Manufacture is that Antal Végh who used to be a good friend of mine when we were children, and while I was playing the organ in the Városmajor Catholic church in Budapest at the age of 13-14 he always sat by my side and loved the sound and the inside of the organ. We were exploring the inside of the instrument for such a long time that I asked him the question; if he was so interested in the organ why the hell was he studying medicine. He said that medicine was a tradition in his family. He finished university fair and square and spent no second in his profession but ran to build organs right away, and established his own company that carries out its duties with noble objectives.
− You have most definitely heard that thanks to the generous offer of a Pécs couple the organ of Kodály Centre will be built to the memory of their son who tragically passed away at a young age.
− The donator, Ferenc Scheffer is a good friend of mine; he will also be here at the concert tonight. I spent last night in the Kodály Centre. It is a wonderful building with lavish acoustic characters. I fell in love with the concert hall so much, that connecting to Mr. Scheffer’s generous donation I offered them to design the organ just out of friendship. In a couple of days he will visit me in my Balaton highland estate where I will hand him the plans. In North America several dozens of instruments were built according to my ideas, and since I dream beautiful sounds to an extremely special organ in Pécs, I will give hard work to its future builders. They will not have the chance to build an instrument that is one-of-a-dozen, and we have also made an agreement with Mr. Scheffer that in case we cannot find a builder team to provide the quality we expect or in case the builders’ financial expectations turn out to be a bit too high we will chose another company from Europe without the blink of an eye since in this age of duty-free markets whoever offers the highest quality at the most competitive price gets to do the work. It is pointless to create an emotional, political or patriotic issue out of the question; this is a purely professional matter. I am the one to carry a two-hour concert on my back as an artist on 150 evenings of the year so an organ for me shall not be packed with politics or deceitful local-patriotic pathos with simple financial reasons in the background but filled with excellent pipes and a prominent machinery. As Péter Esterházy has said: „If a national cockade is pinned to the tip of my pen, I cannot use it just like I could not use it with a kippah or a red star pinned to it. I would like to have just a little ink to my pen. The place of the cockade is designated right above the heart.” When Gábor Lehotka had the organ of the Vác conservatory built by the world famous Jehmlich company in Dresden in 1978 the thoroughly offended echo chamber-like Hungarian organ builders were vomiting blood. Eventually by the emergence of the competition they have pulled themselves together, re-learned the profession and after a few years they were also building gorgeous organs.
− You come to Pécs rather frequently so you must have followed the urban development projects of the Pécs2010 European Capital of Culture Programme. What is your opinion about the changes?
− I have been hoping for a very-very long time that Pécs will start its journey on the path of great changes. For one reason there are only few cities in Hungary I am attached to so strongly like I am to Pécs. For a long time Pécs has been the target of some mockery in connection to the ECoC title and in comparison the miracle happened in just a few moments. The main square is beautiful, the new buildings are fantastic... The Kodály Centre is simply astonishing. The fact that they have found such a glorious harmony of the colours with that small amount of reddish colour that lends the building a kind of patina and makes people think of the good old English whiskey barrels. The whole complex is magnificent; accomplished European-class experts work in it – that is something I found out during the rehearsals. In the moments of the great construction projects everybody feels that here and now is the centre of the universe. The burning question is always whether this ’centre-of-the-universe’ feeling can be prolonged with exciting programmes and interactive audience education in a progressive spirit just like the organ has prolonged itself in my life for around 40 years now, leaving no doubt that my love for the instrument will last as long as I am alive.
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