© Balazs Borocz

New Blood For Liège

In September 2019, Gergely Madaras will succeed Christian Arming as music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège (OPRL). In the run-up to the concert with 'his' future orchestra on March 1st, the young Hungarian conductor discusses his cultural heritage, the role of music director and his artistic vision.

Before we start, what does the music director actually do?The music director points the orchestra in the right direction and influences its programming. He defines the orchestra’s character and sound. It’s a very complex role with responsibility for multiple aspects. I think a good music director needs to know when to intervene and when to let the orchestra act alone.

Taking the lead of an established orchestra is quite a challenge!
I often liken the music director to an explorer, who discovers an inhabited continent. He spends time working with the orchestra and then moves on. So this time must be useful. The OPRL has a rich history and tradition, it already has its own sonority and colour. My goal is not to change everything, but instead to focus on points that need to be redefined, and to evolve together.

© Balazs Borocz
© Balazs Borocz

When did you decide to become a conductor?
I must have been 11 years old. I was still living in Hungary at the time. I remember that I attended a rehearsal of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and that I was impressed with its conductor, an old man, who was none other than Sir Georg Solti. It must have been one of his last concerts in Hungary. That’s when I had the idea to become a conductor.

What was your childhood like, in musical and cultural terms?
I was raised in a family of music lovers. My parents regularly took me to concerts. I was surrounded by traditional Hungarian music, which was being rediscovered at the time. In the period from 1950 until 1980, music was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. By the end of the eighties however, Hungarian culture and folklore experienced a revival. Following the political regime change in 1991, musicians from Budapest travelled to Transylvania, much like Kodály a hundred years earlier. There they discovered villages where Hungarian culture had been preserved and where the traditional songs and dances were still very much alive. That is how the Budapest traditional music festival was born, and how traditional music and dance academies were founded.

What musical training did you have?
At the age of six, my parents enrolled me in a traditional music and dance academy. There I studied the Hungarian violin and the double bass, and solfeggio. Later on, I also studied the flute. So for about ten years, I studied classical and traditional music. I went on to specialise in classical music, studying the flute in Budapest and training to be a conductor in Vienna. But I don't forget my roots in traditional music: they continue to inspire me.

© Alain Vande Craen
© Alain Vande Craen

Then you went on to work with international orchestras, in Manchester, at the English National Opera in London, after which you were appointed the Music Director of the Orchestre de Dijon Bourgogne in 2013 and the Principal Conductor of the Savaria Symphony Orchestra (Hungary). What did you retain from these experiences?
Working in various countries has allowed me to discover different cultures. In the UK, I was astounded at the speed with which the musicians worked and how quick they were to adapt. As you do not have many rehearsals together, you must be efficient. In the French-speaking countries, the significant number of rehearsals allows you to work in depth. I also realised that these orchestras find the attention and the reception by the audience very important, which is significant.

What makes you happy about your future collaboration with the OPRL?
During my first collaboration with the OPRL in 2017, I was quite impressed with the orchestra’s unique alchemy. This orchestra has its own history and sound. And I also realised that the musicians are very curious, that they are interested in delving deeper into the music. I find this very exciting. I worked very hard to get this position, because I wanted to establish a rapport with these musicians.

Moussorgski, Tableaux d'une exposition (Gergely Madaras, OPRL, 2017) (extraits)

The OPRL strives to achieve a 21st century perspective on classical music. What do you think of this approach?
Classical music is an abstract art form. It is neither visible nor tangible. Everything is based on the imagination, on what you feel. When we perform these works, which were composed hundreds of years ago, the emotions we convey are the same now as they were at the time. I often find that orchestras try to adapt their programmes to make them more accessible. While this is not a bad thing, I think the orchestral repertoire is also very accessible. The main thing is to establish a dialogue between the composer and the orchestra, between the musicians and the audience. The orchestra must convey the world around it, if it wants its audience to be moved.

Where do you want to take the orchestra from here?
I would like to firmly root the orchestra in the present, with concerts with more social themes and an interactive programme. I also want to explore encounters between music and other art forms, such as the theatre, film or dance. And finally, of course, I want to share my own musical baggage with the orchestra, the music from Eastern Europe, the French repertoire and German orchestral music.

The concert on March 1st will give us a taste of what’s to come. Can you tell us more about it?
The programme of this concert illustrates the relationship between two composers from different eras. A hundred years separate Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Philippe Boesmans’s Fin de nuit, which was composed especially for this concert. And yet these two compositions have a lot in common. They both attest to a boundless creativity. Music is constantly reinvented in these compositions. With its many contrasting characters, Fin de nuit is a very accessible type of contemporary music, even though it is very difficult to perform! Daphnis et Chloé, meanwhile, attests to Ravel’s immense talent to create colourful soundscapes. Even though you can’t really hum the melody after hearing it in concert, you come away with a certain feeling, a certain atmosphere, like the impression you take away from a sublime painting.

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