Csaba Erdélyi : An Hungarian Violist Appears on the American Scene
By Joseph Curtin, The Violexchange, Volume 4
Born in Budapest in 1946, violist Csaba Erdélyi, a relative newcomer to the American musical scene, studied with Pal Lukacs, Yehudi Menuhin, and Bruno Giuranna. Now teaching at Indiana University, Erdélyi brings valuable experience gained as principal viola of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, former violist of the Chilingirian String Quartet and as viola professor at the Guildhall School of Music in London, to his viola students in the United States.
An introspective and insightful individual, Csaba Erdélyi projects a certain intensity. He sees his artistic objectives clearly and marches forward to realize them without compromise, a trait evident from his early conservatory years. His drive to succeed, not just in the more commercial sense, but in the humanistic sense, shows in his dedication to IDRIART, an organization which holds music festivals in all parts of the world. Its goal: That all nations share a deeper understanding of humanity through the arts.
“I was the first violist to win the Carl Flesch Violin Competition in 1972. Prizes were awarded to both violinists and violists as in previous years of the competition. The reason that the Carl Flesch Competition does not award a viola prize anymore is that when I won it, several of the engagements which were advertised as part of the prize package were withdrawn. The presenters had expected a violinist, not a violist to fulfill certain concert engagements. This made the jury so angry that they said they could not take responsibility if the people who offered engagements didn’t follow them up. That is why my title is the ‘only viola player who ever won the Carl Flesch Competition.’ As a result of winning the competition, I performed with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with Neville Marriner conducting two days after I won the competition. That was a very important engagement. In fact, it was broadcast worldwide. Later, I played the Walton Concerto with the BBC, several recitals, and the Bach Festival. These performances led to engagements with Yehudi Menuhin in Gstaad at his festival, followed by performances in Hungary and London. I was also invited to come to Marlborough as a result of the Carl Flesch award. It was too bad that the Royal Festival Hall debut with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra which was promised the first prize winner did not happen because a violist won. I am a good race horse, though. Before the Carl Flesch Competition in London, I had already won a prize in a Hungarian competition as a student at the Franz Liszt Academy.”
“My school years included a very difficult time for me, because at age 18 or 19 I was told to give up the violin, the instrument I had been studying all along. I was told that I would never succeed as a violinist because I was so stiff and clumsy. My teachers felt that while I might think musically, I was hopeless as a performer. They advised me to choose another profession. This information was presented to me just when I was beginning to believe I was a good player. I was told, ‘Either take up the viola or go into the army.’ I responded that I was terribly shocked at not being allowed to continue with the violin. This was the one musical academy in the country and all students enrolled there were exempt from military service. I had only played the viola sporadically, string quartets and the like. I really experienced an emotional and artistic crisis which lasted six months. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the school officials assigned me to a much greater viola teacher than the previous teachers had studied violin with.”
“That man was Pal Lukacs. I began to take lessons, even though I did not have a good instrument. It was too large for me, so I couldn’t really play in tune. It was all very turbulent, an unsettled time. Lukacs said after awhile, ‘It’s too difficult for you, Csaba. Why don’t you give up and take a teaching post somewhere?’ I was very angry about this and for two months I practiced day and night to improve. When I had my exam in the final week, Lukacs said, ‘If you have such will power, I will give you another chance. You can study with me for a second year.’ So during that summer, I found an instrument that was playable for me. In the second year, I really learned from him and obeyed the rules. And by the end of the second year, I had established myself as an average student no longer in danger of being kicked out of the academy.”
“My third year of study was an important one for Lukacs because that was the year he organized an international viola competition in Hungary. People came from all over the world. There was a fantastic jury which included Borisovsky. I asked Lukacs if I could enter the competition and, even though he said I was not ready to do it, he suggested that I go ahead and enter the competition because it would assist me in learning the repertoire faster. About two months before the competition, during a lesson I remember very well, I suddenly felt freer in my playing. It was a true breakthrough for me. In surprise, Lukacs declared, ‘In 25 years I have never seen such a change in a student.’ And he started to teach me seriously. Two months later, I won third prize at the competition. With this dramatic change I began playing recitals. I played my first Harold in Italy with a professional Hungarian orchestra. By the time I finished my diploma in 1970, the government officially sent me to the Flesch competition. Their I met Menuhin, Tertis, Casals and Primrose and Szigeti.”
“I left Hungary for London in 1972. The years I spent there were invaluable in terms of my artistic development and experience. Being Principal Violist for the Philharmonia Orchestra between 1974 and 1978 represented a great challenge for me, one which I happy accepted. However, I made the decision to pursue activities beyond orchestral life. I became a member of the Chilingirian String Quartet, for example.”
“The time I spent in London also allowed me to have contact with great artists like Menuhin and Tertis. For instance, in the case of Lionel Tertis, I was able to meet him and get a sense of who he was and who I could be in relation to his gigantic achievement. He was a very friendly, supporting person. But what was even more important was his sense of intonation. When I played for him, we spent such a long time on refining the true center of a tone. Up to that point, such refinement was unknown to me. He led me towards true intonation. I started to feel that I could think like he did; I could hear like he did. And that was wonderful. I must tell you what he said to me after listening to one of my performances on the radio. He was able to tell me, bar by bar, which finger I used for each note in the Walton Concerto. It was amazing.”
“Aside from my conventional teaching and performing activities, for a number of years, I have been involved with the IDRIART Festival. IDRIART is an abbreviation for the Institute for the Development of Intercultural Relations Through the Arts. Registered in Geneva, IDRIART is a nonprofit organization. In each place where an IDRIART Festival is held, musicians play recitals and chamber music. There are also lectures on a variety of topics, not necessarily musical in nature. We may talk about composers but also offer discussions on pollution, saving endangered species and the like. I gladly devote two months in the summer to this important endeavor.”
“Three years ago I was a guest at a dinner in Bloomington, Indiana which was given for the Chinese international diving team. I am involved in Chinese activities in Bloomington. Among other things, I will go to Taiwan on a concert tour this year and last year, with IDRIART, I played concerts in Beijing. In any event, I was a quiet guest at this athletic banquet and in the middle of the dinner, I found myself getting up to make a speech. What I said was that sports and art are two areas of human activity that don’t need language. We are all, if we are aware of each other, part of the same alliance. Our performances bring health and well being to people. And I told the banquet attendees about IDRIART, about how the festival had been in Beijing the previous year. And I talked about how many obstacles Miha Pogacnik, a violinist and the man who founded IDRIART ten years ago, had overcome and how many Chinese people had believed in the project. People came from all over the world to meet the Chinese and form totally non-political, human friendships through the arts. While we were in China, we went to play in factories. We played for five to ten thousand people who had never heard classical Western music before. After I relayed these experiences, the Chinese head coach came to me and thanked me for my speech, saying that he had wanted to hear something like it for a long time. That is just a little incident which reveals a bit about IDRIART. Other musicians who involve themselves in IDRIART include Norwegian pianist Einar Noekleberg, Csaba Onczay, who is a cellist from Budapest, organist Leo Kremer from West Germany, and New Zealand pianist Deirdre Irons. We also have philosopher Georg Kuehlewind and musicologist Jurgen Schriefer, a follower of Rudolf Steiner, lecture at the festivals. Dance companies, like the Great American Mime Experiment, also participate.”
“We artists see both the very material side of life and the totally spiritual side of life at the same time. And as a result, one has to think of oneself as priceless, most expensive. At the same time, we musicians would do what we do anyway-even if there were no money in the world. And to reconcile this dual existence is very important for my balance. I’m happy to give much of my life to nonprofit projects. I feel it is important to tap into a larger intelligence than oneself. And I think more and more people who are disenchanted by the limitations they impose upon themselves are seeing that this is a dimension they ought to share. And this applies to people in undeveloped or developed countries. In this sense, when Beethoven or Bach is played and people come together and meet each other to get out of their ordinary concerns about politics and survival, there is not much that needs to be said to overcome differences, because people are already there as brothers and sisters.”
“Miha Pogacnik came up with this idea well before Gorbachev! Politicians are waking up now and saying, ‘Oh, this is good for us. Let’s encourage it.’ Once politicians become involved, though, it becomes dicey because you’re no longer talking about financial remuneration but other types of gain. We have to be very careful about this. In a sense we have to be politicians ourselves. There is always the risk that a politician might contaminate the purity of the idea of IDRIART. In China, they really thought IDRIART was a good idea. There were nice people, even on the diplomatic side, who assisted us. But just by habit, they wanted to control everything that was going to take place, and we didn’t go to China to be controlled. So during the first days of the festival we had to state our principles and unless they accepted those principles we were not going to play.”
“I suppose it is possible that politicians could view IDRIART as a threat. Not just musicians are involved in it, so there is always the potential that we could begin a sort of mass movement. Politicians do see a danger in people liking each other rather than disliking each other. What we are doing is breaking down barriers. Every time someone says that classical music is too highbrow, too difficult, too far away from their experience, we say they should come and listen to the pre-concert talk so they can realize that what we deal with are very basic human emotions, emotions that are in everybody. And they don’t have to be educated to appreciate what comes across. IDRIART is very conscious of the fact that it brings music to the uneducated. In that way it resembles playing school concerts for children. People come to these concerts out of curiosity. Ultimately, what IDRIART appeals to is the fundamental core which exists in each of us, which is the same in the best of us.”