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The Cimbalom Wizard

Family legend has it that Oszkár Ökrös was actually born to play the cimbalom. The Kossuth Prize-winning musician has become a regular partner of the Budapest Festival Orchestra; their next performances together, on 29th & 30th March and 1st April in Müpa Budapest, will be packed with improvisation. Interview.
His fellow professionals have referred to Oszkár Ökrös as both ‘the Cimbalom Wizard’ and ‘the Paganini of the Cimbalom’. You have become a virtuoso of the cimbalom – how popular is your instrument these days? Oszkár Ökrös: Curiously, the cimbalom seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance; as far as I’m aware, more and more people are learning to play the instrument. Friends tell me that the trend has reached other countries too, where numerous musicians who started to play the piano have also taken up the cimbalom. While the cimbalom is, of course, quite a different instrument to the piano, it is still considered its closest relative. And if you play the piano well, you can teach yourself the cimbalom too. One reason for its popularity is that it is employed in several classical pieces. The cimbalom is not really considered a classical instrument. What was it that fascinated Liszt and Stravinsky so much that they wrote such fitting music for the instrument? O.Ö.: The instrument was used quite often in the Baroque era, but for many years from the 17th century on it was heard only in folk music. Up to the end of the 18th century only gypsy and certain other folk musicians played the cimbalom; the great classics of the period never featured the instrument. Later however, a number of major and well-known classical compositions did make use of the cimbalom. In Hungary, Ferenc Erkel was the first to employ it in his works, but only as Bartók and Kodály made use of the new style was it accepted as a classical instrument in this region. Aladár Rácz is considered to have perfected the use of the cimbalom. When he began playing pieces by Bach, Scarlatti and Couperin in the 1920s, it turned out that this wonderful instrument is perfectly suited to the classical or earlier repertoire. Rácz’s own compositions proved once and for all that the cimbalom should be considered a classical music instrument. Cimbalom manufacture may well be a more complicated task than the making of other instruments. Who are the most famous cimbalom makers? O.Ö.: In the 19th century, the modern cimbalom was manufactured by Schunda & Co. This was followed by the world-acclaimed Hungarian cimbalom builder Lajos Bohák, and later his entire dynasty. Their instruments can be considered comparable with Stradivarius violins or Steinway pianos. I know that you started playing as a small child, but when exactly, and why did you opt for the cimbalom? O.Ö.: I took up the cimbalom at the age of six. My grandfather was a famous cimbalom player and I loved the way he played this big instrument. I was always noising around him and never even wanted to hear about any other instruments. Our family includes several violinists, pianists and other instrumentalists but I was insistent on playing the cimbalom. This led my grandfather to begin my tuition and I made quick progress. Everybody was saying “this kid was born to play the cimbalom”.  I won a national competition at the age of eight, and the prize was my acceptance to the conservatory. Of course the minister had to approve that because of my tender age. You would go on to be awarded the Kossuth Prize and become a world famous musician. When did you first play alongside Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra? O.Ö.: It’s been more than twenty years now since Iván first invited me to play as a soloist. And I’ve been grateful ever since. Recording all of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances with them was a great experience. Since then, I have been performing with the Festival Orchestra and our friendship and good relationship has remained steady. I respect Iván Fischer both as a person and as a conductor. And it is a great honour that whenever a cimbalom is needed in a concert, he always thinks of me. Your son is a violinist. Does the cimbalom not attract him? O.Ö.: He recently graduated from the Royal Conservatory in Brussels where he studied under Igor Oistrakh, while also studying alongside Miklós Szenthelyi at the Liszt Academy in Budapest. He chose a good instrument and should stick to it. On 29th & 30th March and 1st April you and the BFO will be playing Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 1. O.Ö.: Yes, the piano cadenzas in this composition play a crucial role, although this arrangement features a cimbalom in place of the piano. I feel extremely lucky that Iván Fischer has given me a free hand throughout the piece, which means he has fixed only the allotted time, within which I am my own master as far as playing is concerned. This gives me every opportunity to improvise. Every concert will be a tremendous experience!