Gergely Madaras is easily the most acclaimed young Hungarian conductor Western Europe has seen in decades. His international career took off not from Hungary, but as a result of the Besançon Conducting Competition. We spoke with him before his first concert with the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
You are so busy that it was a challenge just to find a time for this interview. As a father of two and an artist relatively new to the world of conducting, how are you able to accept so many invitations?
Of course, I’m very fortunate to have received a lot of inquiries despite the coronavirus pandemic. Certainly, a number of my concerts have been canceled because of the virus. This meant, however, that I was able to spend more time with my family, which has made these several months easier.
You reside in London, but from what I can tell, you have invitations from almost all around the world and appearances everywhere.
Indeed, we live in London, but I actually have three bases. My cultural base is, without a doubt, Budapest. We have an apartment here, four minutes from the Liszt Academy and three minutes from the Opera. For the past nine years, my family’s home has been in London. My older daughter goes to school there, and my younger was born there. My wife, Noémi Győri, is a flautist, and earned her doctorate at the Royal Academy of Music. For me, my first employer was the Royal Opera. London is a fantastic city: we love its dynamism, and the fact that you meet so many exciting people there. Of course, even this is not easy these days.
I imagine that your third base is Belgium, since you were recently named music director of the Liège Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Yes, I have been in charge of the orchestra in Liège since 2019. The city is the cultural and economic center of the French-speaking part of Belgium. So that is, indeed, my third base. I spend 12-14 weeks each season with the orchestra there. The rest of the time is when I am on the road. I have had years when I took fifty flights, not to mention all the trips by train. Of course, these have become rarer recently.
When you receive so many invitations, how do you decide which ones to, perhaps, turn down?
Of course, the most important thing is the content. Despite my young age, I try to ensure that quantity does not surpass quality.
You mentioned your youth, which is why I ask: if you turn down an invitation, do they perhaps think you are conceited when you tell them that you would rather not work with a particular orchestra?
I am tremendously fortunate in that most of the invitations I receive emerge organically. For instance, the BFO invited me not ten years ago, but when I had already proven myself with other orchestras. It is possible that an orchestra which, in an earlier stage of my career, meant a great deal to me and gave me a lot, would today not mean a particularly motivating invitation. When deciding whether or not to accept an invitation, I tend to consider the repertoire, the timing and the seriousness of the concert. Of course, it also matters if I can contribute something to the performance of the orchestra, and what I can learn from them in a particular case. But once I accept an invitation, nothing can hold me back.
Over the course of your career, you have crossed paths with a number of prominent musicians you may rightfully be proud of: as your teachers or as people you have worked with. You served as an assistant to Pierre Boulez at the Lucerne Academy, and you have worked with Péter Eötvös, George Benjamin and James Levine, just to mention the world-renowned names.
Yes, that is certainly an impressive list, and a few of them truly are individuals whose name looks particularly good in one’s CV. I am proud to have worked with them. There are some, however, whose names may not be as well-known, but I still feel I learned the most from them. One example is Sir Mark Elder, whom I consider my mentor. He is an outstanding individual not only as a father figure in music, but also as a colleague. I can always go to him with any question.
When preparing for your concert in Budapest, how difficult did it make things that you prepared for a different soloist from the one who will ultimately perform at the concert (even if the substitute is the wonderful cellist Miklós Perényi)?
This is a particularly exciting swap for me, because while I have had the privilege of performing together with almost all of the most prominent Hungarian soloists, and have in fact worked with some of them regularly, there are two exceptions: András Schiff and Miklós Perényi. It has long been a dream of mine to perform with them sometime. I have heard Miklós Perényi on a number of occasions: he is an outstanding musician, and I can hardly wait to meet him.
Did you determine the line-up yourself?
Yes. I did, however, consult several times with Iván Fischer beforehand. This was a particularly good feeling for me because while there are serious teams behind Iván and his orchestra – and I myself have three managers – it was just the two of us consulting on the repertoire. This, too, shows that Iván Fischer likes to keep his hand on things that matter to him. A number of factors emerged during our conversations, but after careful consideration, we were able to come up with our shared vision very nicely. Ultimately, the concert will feature works I proposed.
In addition to the two French composers, Fauré and Saint Saëns, why Schumann?
I thought it important for the French background to be robust, since I myself have been working primarily in French-speaking areas for years. Both French composers, by the way, have Belgian roots. I also thought it may be interesting to listen to a French line-up in Hungary, as this does not happen often. As for Schumann: he is included in the mix because I am very fond of early German romanticism and Viennese classicism. Perhaps because – like Iván Fischer and Ádám Fischer – I studied conducting in Vienna. On top of that, I find that Schumann’s symphonies are somewhat neglected, sadly, because they say their instrumentation is not good enough. I think that’s nonsense. I think their instrumentation is very good, in fact. It is just more difficult to bring out the niceties and the nuances. But the Festival Orchestra is absolutely prepared to do just that.
Had you known the orchestra earlier?
Not as a conductor, but I know several of the members quite well, and I can also tell you that I grew up listening to the Cocoa Concerts. In fact, when I was in elementary school, the father of one of my classmates was a double bass player in the orchestra, and he convinced me to go see one of the Festival Orchestra’s rehearsals. He knew me to be something of a one-person band in the class (I have been playing music since the age of five). They let me sit by the leader of the second violin section. The conductor was György Solti, and they were rehearsing Bartók’s Concerto. It was at that rehearsal that I decided I would become a conductor.