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Love of music binds Hungarians and Americans

In its WittyLeaks series, Diplomac&Trade regularly publishes the personal accounts of siplomatic mission leaders accredited to Budapest. This time, David J. Kostelancik, the Chargé d'Affaires of the American Embassy shares his thoughts about music.

As
a musician, my love and appreciation for music is woven deeply into who I am,
and it is something I’ve carried with me through all the stages of my life and
career.

In
fact, one of the first things I knew about Hungary was Hungarian music. Growing
up in Chicago and studying clarinet with a renowned orchestral player, I was
exposed early and often to the work of the talented Sir Georg Solti, the
Hungarian conductor who directed the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 22 years. For
us, high school students who scraped together money for tickets in the upper
balcony of the Orchestra Hall to watch Solti and hear for ourselves how he had
made the ensemble the world’s best, music was exhilarating; it was the voice of
culture and history – sometimes old, sometimes contemporary. My fellow
musicians and I studied under Solti’s students and his orchestra members, just
as he had studied under several Hungarian greats – Béla Bartók, for example. Whether
we were performing Liszt’s ‘Les Preludes’ or ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’, we knew
that those notes connected us to people from another century, another continent
and another reality. They sparked our interest to know more.

Coming
to the country of Bartók and Kodály

This
early exposure to Hungarian music made my diplomatic assignment to Hungary even
more special. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work in the
land that had produced such talented musicians and that maintains a deep and
abiding respect for music as part of its culture. My excitement was affirmed in
the earliest days of my Hungarian language classes at the State Department’s
Foreign Service Institute, as both of my Hungarian instructors spoke repeatedly
of the Hungarian greats, such as Bartók and Kodály, and talked enthusiastically about the
great institutions of Hungarian music, such as the Liszt Ferenc Academy. Thanks
to my early exposure to the world of European music that Maestro Solti and his
students opened for me, I had a head start in some of my early
Hungarian-language assignments in preparation for music opportunities once I
arrived in Budapest.

Yet,
since I arrived in Budapest, my experiences have exceeded my expectations. I
was awed to finally make my first visit to the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music and
see the tribute to Sir Georg outside, and in the hall named after him inside. Watching
young pianists competing for the Liszt Ferenc Prize perform his works reminded
me of the thrill of performing in the world premiere of newly-commissioned
pieces as a clarinetist with the acclaimed Wind Symphony while a student at
Northwestern University in Chicago.

Impressed
by the Budapest music scene

In
my role as a diplomat, I’ve also had the tremendous honor of celebrating the
cultural connections between the United States and Hungary. One of the
highlights was when in March 2017, I welcomed the New York Philharmonic to MÜPA.
What most excites me about Budapest’s classical music scene is the
juxtaposition of old and new on concert programs. More than just ear candy, the
most enduring music challenges us to allow ourselves to be transported to
another time and place, and to learn something from what the composer is
telling us through sound. I have continually been impressed by how the Budapest
music scene succeeds on that level. A great example was the New York
Philharmonic’s sold-out rendering of Bartók’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion
and Celesta’ and Mahler’s ‘Symphony Number 4’. These are complex pieces. The
Bartók piece is interesting because there is almost no melody or repeated
patterns or passages. Instead of having a melody line that is developed in different
ways throughout the piece, it consists of many different tones and rhythms. Written
in 1936, its themes have been repeatedly used in movies and television shows. The
New York Philharmonic’s MÜPA performance put me in Bartók’s shoes and made me
think of how he carefully worked elements of Baroque music into the
composition.

Pairing
that with Mahler’s Second Symphony was genius, recalling Mahler’s association
with Budapest as Director of the Opera at the end of the 19th century. I spent
considerable time after the concert with New York conductor Alan Gilbert discussing
the orchestra’s European tour and his conducting style. As a budding conductor
myself, having led orchestras in performance of challenging Shostakovich works,
I admired how he had managed both pieces.

A
music loving country

In
addition to hearing and appreciating Hungarian music, it’s a joy to live in a
country where music of all kinds is
so loved. I was fortunate to see concerts here by Sting, Bruno Mars, Andrea Bocelli
and Jose Carreras. I also had a chance to meet and hear the very talented
Nicolle Rochelle (see picture) when the U.S. Embassy
sponsored her visit to Hungary last year. She’s a fantastic performer with a
true passion for jazz, swing, and boogie music, and she had a great experience
traveling around Hungary to perform and to meet Hungarians.

Hungary’s
long tradition of world-acclaimed musicians bring the past to the present, and
gives us the chance to show our appreciation, and to learn. In May 2017, I hosted
Hungarian jazz musicians, including the renowned Béla Szakcsi Lakatos and
established beat musician and one of the composers of widely popular rock opera
‘István, a király’, Levente Szörényi, at an evening dedicated to the brave
Hungarian musicians who, in 1956, clandestinely recorded jazz just prior to the
Soviet invasion. Later that same month, I was honored to open the ‘Milliók
Hangja’ Willis Conover 1956 Revolution Commemoration Swing and Big Band Concert
at MÜPA where the great Budapest Jazz Orchestra, Levente Szörényi and rising
star Bálint Gájer performed Hungarian and American jazz classics. In 2018, I
will be excited to welcome the United States Army Europe Band and Chorus to
Hungary in April. Our Armed Forces have an amazing musical tradition, and I
know Hungarian audiences will appreciate their work.

The
legendary performer Ferenc Snétberger, classical guitarist and winner of both
the Liszt Ferenc and Kossuth Prizes, amazes me with his dexterity and fresh
approaches to classical and contemporary music. Bea Palya’s voice is a
treasure, one that I love listening to at home.

Learning
through music

Paraphrasing
Senator William Fulbright, an exchange of musical ideas, or even of musicians themselves,
is not a solution but an avenue of hope. It’s not the end, but the start of
learning about others. When you take
the time to learn about someone else, their country, their culture, traditions
and history, you learn about the individual – the complex, nuanced person – and
you see past stereotypes. What better way to do that than through music. Musicians
can talk about the pieces they have played or the conductors they have worked
with, about the meaning of their favorite compositions, about their choice of a
particular instrument. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in Chicago, Budapest or
Kisújszállás – we are a community united because of our mutual interest and
understanding of the process of personal expression through sounds.

Thankfully,
I’m only halfway through my diplomatic assignment here, and can look forward to
many more musical experiences while I’m here in Hungary. My wife and I already
have tickets for the 2018-2019 season of the Hungarian Opera, and can’t wait
for performances in the newly renovated Opera House. Hajrá magyar zenészek!

David J. Kostelancik

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