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Ambassadors in Budapest
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.
David J. Kostelancik
Diplomacy&Trade online | May 3, 2018

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!

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