KAPOSVAR, Hungary (Reuters) - This picturesque southwestern Hungarian city, flanked by rolling hills and cornfields parched by a heat wave, is more famous for painters and playhouses than musicians, but this month it was one of the stars of the chamber music universe.
By sheer force of personality, contacts and bravado, husband-and-wife violinists Katalin Kokas and Barnabas Kelemen, who play together professionally in the Kelemen Quartet, assembled about 50 of the world’s best, mostly young, chamber-oriented musicians for the third Kaposvar International Chamber Music Festival, Kaposfest (www.kaposfest.hu) for short.
“I have artists all over the world who are my friends,” Kokas told Reuters. “...I told Martha (Argerich, the world-renowned Argentine piano virtuoso) that she can appear any time, we will put on an extra concert for her, but I think she was just a little lazy, not to come.”
So Argerich is for the future, but this year, from August 14-20, the musical fare was heady enough.
There was Russian-born violinist Alina Ibragimova and her Finnish counterpart Pekka Kuusisto, Russian cellist Alexander Rudin, pianists Jose Gallardo of Argentina and Shai Wosner from Israel, and many more of equal caliber.
Throw in leading Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltan Kocsis, 60, who served as an almost non-stop accompanist, plus the 90-year-old Israeli violinist and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Ivry Gitlis, and this largely agricultural city, two hours by road from Budapest, became the musical place to be.
“I really do think it’s wonderful,” said Wosner, 36, who was born in Israel and studied in New York where he now lives, as he devoured a plate of salmon in a cafe on his way from the morning concert to an afternoon full of rehearsals.
“The schedule is crazy, there are rehearsals every waking moment, almost, but it’s really a lot of fun and it’s well organised and the town is lovely.”
Possibly because of Kaposvar’s compact size, or because the festival is fresh and determinedly informal, but also because of the personalities of its creators including festival director Gyorgy Bolyki, Kaposfest is an event where anything can happen.
Where else, for example, would the nonagenarian Gitlis wander on stage - unannounced on the program - to play with one of Hungary’s top gypsy bands?
Where else would Ibragimova, Wosner and Rudin rise to the challenge the following morning by performing the third movement of a trio that Haydn specified should be played “in the gypsy style” with such energy they almost outdid the gypsies?
“Not a chance,” Ibragimova said when pressed to acknowledge that had been their intention, but Wosner later admitted “it was on our minds”.
Such moments - and there were many, in repertoire ranging from Vivaldi to Steve Reich - made Kaposvar an exhilarating place to be.
“I think it’s great. I think the atmosphere, with all the artists, and the audiences, brings even more magic to the place,” Gallardo, who admitted that getting up for 11 a.m. concerts was not exactly his cup of tea, said as he finished his lunch before rehearsing. “Hungary is such a musical country.”
The advantage of being in a small place, with seasoned Hungarian musicians like Kocsis on hand, became apparent at Kaposvar’s music school a short walk from the concert hall.
There the pianist famed for his interpretations of Bartok’s piano music was talking the young Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang through a Brahms sonata.
After they’d played each movement, Kocsis would turn to Frang and gently suggest that if she performed a phrase as she just had, the pianist would find it difficult to play all the notes, but if she altered her phrasing a jot, all would be well.
“He’s a hidden treasure,” Frang said afterwards, thrilled to have had a master class on the fly.
The festival was filled with such moments, of musicians taking delight in playing with one another for the first time, or with musicians they idolized, in a meeting of minds and techniques that more often than not instantly clicked.
“We’re playing the greatest music of the greatest composers, this is as good as it gets in terms of music,” violist James Boyd, 44, of Norfolk, England, said.
“This isn’t like one day we’ll do the good stuff. This is the absolute best stuff from classical art. It doesn’t get better.”
State broadcaster MTVA recorded the concerts which, when last year’s festival was aired over the European broadcast network, reached an estimated 80 million listeners, Bolyki said.
“We made some mistakes in the first festival and we wanted to learn from that before we started to reach out to the international audiences,” Bolyki told Reuters.
“Now we are ready to tell the world what we have here, we want the people in Austria to know there is a high quality music festival right next door, and we hope the foreign audience attends next year.”
Editing by Mike Collett-White