hun/ eng
my basket
I have been building teams all my life


I have been building teams all my life

Interview with György Vámos

Research chemist, environmental protection expert and company head, György Vámos is a member of the board of trustees of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. We spoke with him about formative childhood experiences; the roots of environmental protection in Hungary; soot, which played a key role in his personal career; and of course: music, from David Oistrakh to Mick Jagger and the BFO.

Júlia Váradi: When did you first hear about the Festival Orchestra?

György Vámos: I had heard of Iván Fischer even before there was ever any talk of the Festival Orchestra. The reason for this is that he and I actually have important roots in common: Bánk.

J. V.: Is that the famous children’s camp?

Gy. V.: Indeed. This was a camp established in Bánk in the forties by Eszter Leveleki; I myself spent many summers there, as did my children later on. I actually got pulled away from it a little too early, when we moved to Switzerland for my mother’s work. But I still have these roots deep within, as do many others who experienced the environment of the camp. Then, much later, when I visited Eszter Leveleki, she told me about those who had had been to her camp, or spent long summers there, and she highlighted a few for me whom she thought would be worth paying attention to, and with whom I might want to be in contact. It was from her that I first heard Iván Fischer’s name. Eszter knew that I was a music-lover, someone very much receptive to music, so she told me about Iván, who was still living in the Netherlands at the time.

J. V.: So you became interested in Iván Fischer, who was already a prominent conductor?

Gy. V.: That was exactly it. I used to be a regular concertgoer, because my father – who was a world-renowned photographer, and photographed prominent musicians as well as famous soloists and conductors – would often take me along on these visits. I also often attended concerts with my mother – my parents divorced fairly early –; so I had these musical experiences on both sides. And music has continued to accompany my life ever since. The names of the musicians we heard are deeply ingrained in my memory: the list includes people like Imre Ungár, Annie Fischer and so on.

J. V.: Did your father introduce you to the profession of photography as well?

Gy. V.: Back then, arranging the lighting for photography was very different from how it is today, so I was actually given tasks; there were times when I had to hold the lights. And not just at concerts, but also at rehearsals, so I was able to get to know the musicians and how music is made, from an entirely different perspective. I was able to experience from up close how a conductor or a violinist create music. I was there at rehearsals of David Oistrakh, Pablo Casals and so on. I’ll never forget these.

J. V.: Was it only with classical music that you developed such a close relationship? I ask this because I understand you have recently returned to Hungary from the United States with your wife, but you ended up postponing your trip home because of an opportunity to attend a Mick Jagger concert.

Gy. V.: That was indeed the case. We felt we could not pass up this chance. I have to say that when it comes to music, I am essentially an omnivore. I used to attend club performances by Benkó Dixieland. I’ve also always loved country and blues. I appreciate all kinds of music.

J. V.: I imagine The Rolling Stones once again did not disappoint!

Gy. V.: No, they were amazing!

J. V.: Was it like old times again?
Gy. V.: That’s a good question. I don’t think it was like reliving my childhood or adolescence. I’m well over yearning for those years. I feel that I have always found what I desired in every phase of my life. In other words, I think I have made every phase essentially whole. So I think what I experienced was joy at being able to see and appreciate this unique individual. Mick Jagger’s performance is simply something you can’t imagine as a regular human being. We’re talking about an 81-year-old person singing, moving and playing constantly, without stopping; it is almost like he alone is carrying that band for two hours straight. And his voice is perfect to this day. So: rock music, like classical music, can also be an amazing experience.

J. V.: To go back to your early adult years: it sounds like you chose the right profession for yourself, although I understand that you originally studied chemistry at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and had plans to become a chemist. But you ultimately turned to environmental protection, and became quite successful in that field.

Gy. V.: That was exactly it. I am one of those who basically began dealing with environmental protection in Hungary on a professional level already in the ‘70s, in a complex framework. I started out with waste management, but I expanded from there and in the ‘80s I was a senior expert for a body called the National Technical Supervisory Commission. I led a number of work committees and played a part in work which would eventually lay the foundation for introducing official environmental protection in Hungary.

J. V.: How exactly did this work?

Gy. V.: I never enjoyed traveling the beaten paths; it would have driven me crazy if I had had to live my life according to regulations. So I joined a company which seemed to have nothing to do at the time with chemistry: my first workplace was the Tatabánya Coal Mines.
Yet they were actually launching a new project which did involve environmental protection: the complex utilization of coal. It was already clear at the time that coal mining was heading towards a decline, so they were trying to look for ways to make coal production more efficient. This included the waste from coal-fired power plants, such as slag and soot. I started dealing with the utilization of soot. I became an expert in the field, not only in Hungary, but also in the UN. When I first decided to go to Tatabánya, I had no idea I would become involved with soot.

J. V.: To this day, does the utilization of soot as a combustion product account for the greater part of the professional activities in your life?

Gy. V.: Thankfully, it also accounts for the financial part. Because I ultimately found something which I could make money from. I initiated the establishment of a professional group in Hungary dealing with this issue. I became its leader, and this professional group began working on areas where there were gaps around soot. There were several of these, since soot is a material that is capable of special ion-exchange. It binds polluting ions released from waste; in other words, it binds pollutants itself. In the early nineties, I was able to take over a small side branch of the Mátra Power Plant, the soot plant in Lőrinci, which had already been closed down. And I said that I was willing to take on its recultivation if they gave it to me; I would take care of disposal of the waste, or recultivation in other words. So this is what I have been earning my livelihood from ever since. Also in part because when I became independent, I joined forces with a company called Golder, founded in Canada, which quickly earned increasingly impressive environmental protection contracts. For instance, the EU delegated our company to conduct environmental protection inspections to prepare a number of important privatization processes.

J. V.: Let’s steer away from environmental protection to go back to music for a minute. How did you come to be one of the most significant supporters of the BFO and an important member of the orchestra’s Board of Trustees?

Gy. V.: When I joined the management of Golder, I picked a very intelligent, sophisticated elderly lady to be my secretary. She only agreed to serve in the position for one year, to give me time to establish my own secretariat. Her daughter and her son-in-law were musicians in the Weiner-Szász Chamber Symphony. We became good friends. They invited me to their concerts, and I always enjoyed attending. At that point, I did not have to worry as much about building my career, and my children were also older; I felt I could afford to become a supporter of the Weiner-Szász Symphony. And this helped them a great deal, because I was able to draw in a few other major sponsors. But then one day I met Tamás Körner, the managing director of the BFO at the time. He, too, had attended the Bánk children’s camp, by the way, and he happened to be the friend of a good friend of mine. This is how we came to talk about sponsoring the Festival Orchestra. Meanwhile, I also learned that another one of my very good friends had season passes to the BFO’s performances. So by the late ‘90s I, too, because an active member of the Festival Orchestra’s audience. And from that time we purchased our season passes together and attended concerts together. That was some twenty-five years ago.

J. V.: But you became more than an active member of the audience: you became an active supporter and a regular guest of the orchestra’s tours, including visits to the Opera Festival in Vicenza, the Luzern Festival and New York.

Gy. V.: I am happy to travel anywhere with the orchestra, because it is such a great experience to see this fabulous ensemble. All my life I have organized my colleagues around me so as to build a real team. And I think it was thanks to this that I have been successful as a manager. And it is also thanks to this that – even though I am far too old for any day-to-day work – my former colleagues can’t really imagine any kind of team-related activity without me there with them. And that is great.

J.V.: Is this similar to what you experience when on tour as a member of the Festival Orchestra team?
Gy. V.: That’s what I was getting at. I do enjoy the music – but it is great to experience belonging to a team. And I think that Iván Fischer – in addition to trusting me – invited me to join the Board of Trustees because he felt that he could reinforce this team spirit with me.