May 29 2010
I met Pittsburgh-born harpsichordist Geoffrey Thomas at the home of Hungary’s most famous composer, Bela Bartok. I took a taxi for the 15 minute drive to the house from Pest over to Buda on the hilly side of the Danube River. Birds sang sweetly as I walked up the path to the house that’s surrounded by tall trees and green lawns; the grounds all carefully manicured. We were the only visitors this afternoon, and had a private tour guide in Agnes Boobelly. She led us through the concert hall which seats 150, and showed us Bartok’s Bösendorfer piano. A cigarette was discovered inside the piano in 2006 when the instrument was restored, confirming the habit of the composer. Here is his phonograph, hauled by cart throughout Romania and Transylvania to record folk songs; his handmade furniture, which Geoffrey assured me is beautiful but uncomfortable; and on the third floor, his many collections such as the insects that inspired his set of piano pieces titled Mikrokosmos. The house gleams white in the sunshine and has a great view of the Budapest hillside. No wonder why Bartok’s heart was broken when he left home at the start of the Second World War. He visited Pittsburgh on several occasions to perform recitals and play concertos with the Pittsburgh Symphony under fellow Hungarian Fritz Reiner. Reiner joined forces with Serge Koussevitsky of the Boston Symphony to commission the last music completed by Bartok, his Concerto for Orchestra. Reiner made the first recording of Bartok’s most popular masterpiece in Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque.
It was great to see Geoffrey Thomas again. I’ve known his mom, flutist Jean Thomas, for a long time. She and I worked together on a series of radio programs with The Dear Friends ensemble. Geoffrey and I rode the subway, looked around the city center, and stopped at the Girbeaud coffee shop for Dobos torte. I took a short tram ride to the National Concert Hall and its Bela Bartok Theater. I’m always a little nervous when I don’t know a word of the language and the street signs make no sense to me whatsoever. I asked a neatly-dressed couple if they knew where the National Concert Hall was. They said they were going there to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter. When I said I was from Pittsburgh, they quickly added that they had heard that the Pittsburgh Symphony was very distinguished and they were looking forward to the Mahler.
The National Concert Hall is delicious with bright red carpets, and lights that constantly change color after dark. There’s a fantastic art book shop downstairs connected to the adjoining Ludwig Museum. The only sour note was an usher who simply would not be convinced to let me back in after Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. I had to content myself with listening in the wings as Manfred Honeck conducted the Johann Strauss Jr. encore, Éljen a Magyar! (Long Live Hungary!), which asks the Pittsburgh Symphony members to shout out “Hungary!” on the final note.
PSO Board member Basil Cox and Jayne Adair told me they loved the evening. They were off to Venice in the morning to fulfill a promise of three decades standing.
Anne-Sophie Mutter completed her run of seven concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony; eight if you count Carnegie Hall in New York, and nine if you add the snowy night in February when she played the Brahms Concerto at Heinz Hall. She told me in her dressing room, still wearing a beautiful gown, that she and André Previn both love the Pittsburgh Orchestra. She’d just talked to André about his concerts in Prague days after the Pittsburgh left town. André had played chamber music and conducted the Czech Philharmonic. Her refreshment table was outfitted not with M&M’s, but rather a bowl of granola or muesli and fresh fruit. I thought her praise for Pittsburgh was genuine. It’s clear she liked working with Manfred Honeck and with Cynthia Koledo DeAlmeida, who has a big oboe solo in the Brahms.
Anne-Sophie told the Budapest audience that “Your sense of rhythm is most impressive!” before playing her Bach encore.