Hungarian Journal

Planning a concert tour takes a lot of work and cooperation, especially if the area you’ll be touring is across the Atlantic. The time we spent in Hungary, from March 5th through the 16th, was an experience that we will never forget. However, four concerts in the space of a week is a taxing proposition for anyone. Here is a day-by-day account of the tour.

Thursday, March 4th

This, our departure day, was a very busy day: at 10 AM, we had a lesson with my teacher, Lynn Chang. Then, at 12 we played a mini-recital at the school I teach at (Boston Trinity Academy). After that, Constantine had two lessons to teach! However, everything went fine, and at 6:20, Northwest Airlines Flight 38 lifted off.

Friday, March 5th

The next morning we landed in Amsterdam and, while we felt a bit cramped from the flight, were exhilarated to be on our way. During our short layover, we changed a bit of money (and were shocked how weak the dollar is in comparison to the Euro right now), bought some good salami, bread and strawberry preserves, and had breakfast. A short while later, Malév Flight 3937 was lifting off and we were on our way to Budapest. We were greeted with the sight of snow falling. Snow in Hungary during this time of the year is certainly uncommon, but winter would be a constant companion during our trip. Since we arrived at noon, we decided to look around Budapest for a few hours. Although Constantine has been to every country in Western Europe, this was his first trip to Hungary, and our first stop, a pastry shop, was a good way to start our little sightseeing trip. Pastry shops and coffee shops are a must when one travels to Europe, and we visited quite a few during the tour. After seeing some sights: looking across the Danube to the Buda side, where the majestic National Gallery and the spire of St. Matthew’s cathedral sit proudly, we walked down the famous Váci utca (a pedestrian shopping street in downtown Pest), and had dinner in a quaint little restaurant. The rest of the evening was spent at my cousin’s home where we spent the night.

Saturday, March 6th
Gyor Street Scene

The train system in Hungary is well developed and makes travel very convenient. We experienced this first hand when we took a morning Intercity train to Győr, where we were to stay a few days with my aunt and uncle. Upon arrival, we were treated to a scrumptious lunch after which we practiced for about four hours, working out final kinks in the performance repertoire.

Sunday, March 7th

Shortly after lunch, we left for Sopron, a town about ninety kilometers west of Győr, site of our first concert. The concert hall was located in the “Pannonia Med Hotel”. This hotel hosts a weekly concert series and has a faithful subscriber list. In the end, we enjoyed a crowd of about eighty, a reasonably large size considering the fact that we were unknowns. Phil and Constantin in hotel concert

The American Double in concert in Sopron, Hungary

The program consisted of Brahms’ Sonata in D-minor, Op. 108, three contrasting works by William Bolcom (Fourth Sonata, Duo Fantasy and Graceful Ghost) and the Sonata for Violin and Piano by Maurice Ravel. Notably, these were the first performances of Mr. Bolcom’s works in Hungary and we were to find universal praise in every location we played them. The entire concert was a great success, after which we took a brief tour of the city, finally ending up at my favorite coffee house in the city, the Dömötör. Győr street scene

Monday, March 8th

This was a travel day to our next destination, Nyíregyháza. Nyíregyháza is a town of about 120,000 citizens, and is the county seat of the Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, which is located in the northeast part of Hungary, (Győr is in the Northwestern part). We were to be continually impressed by the beauty of the city. Upon arrival to our destination, Marianna Stick, our liaison in Nyíregyháza, picked us up at the train station. Marianna is an important figure in the mayor’s office and took the better part of two days to ferry us to various interviews, receptions and masterclasses besides, of course, the concert. This evening, she took us to our place of residence for the next two nights, the Bencs Villa. This residence, a villa of majestic proportions, was the home of the first mayor of Nyíregyháza. After freshening up, Marianna picked us up and hosted a small but wonderful dinner party at her home.

Tuesday, March 9th

At ten o’clock, we started rehearsing in the concert hall at the Sándor Vikár School of Music. We were extremely impressed with the hall: with a seating area of around 150 and done almost entirely in wood, it was an acoustically ideal setting for a chamber music recital. A wonderful Blüthner grand piano gave a clear and resonant sound. At that point, we knew that all was in place for a good concert. Later in the day, after some lunch and rest, we returned for the concert, which was to start at 5 PM. Although this starting time may seem odd for us in the States, it is common to start concerts this early in Hungary. When we arrived at 4:30, we were greeted by two separate television camera crews, who wanted to prepare reports on the duo and the concert. Although it was my first time interviewing in Hungarian, it went well. Constantine followed, doing the interviews in English.

Constantine and Phil performing at the Sándor Vikár School of Music

In an electrified atmosphere such as this, it is easy to play well, and the concert went very well. Concert in Nyíregyháza The audience was extremely appreciative and we played two encores. Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost, which we played in the program along with some other Bolcom pieces, was a consistent favorite; during the tour, many people requested copies of the work. How many performances of this work will occur in Hungary now? Many, I’m sure. After the concert, there was a very nice reception given in our honor, attended by many of the representatives of the town. We sincerely thank them for their attendance.

Wednesday, March 10th
Constantine Finehouse conducting a masterclass

Just before ten o’clock the next morning, we had our third interview, this time with a local radio station. The last question of the interview was for Constantine, and it was “what do you think of the girls around here?”… About an hour later, we had another interview, this time with a magazine called Szabi, roughly translated “Free time”. This is a quarterly magazine, and a profile of The American Double will appear in the next issue, due out in April. After lunch, and right before we were due to give masterclasses, we had our fifth interview, this time with a newspaper reporter. He had heard how well the concert had gone the night before, and thought it would be a good idea if we had an article in the next day’s paper. From about 2:30-4:30, we gave masterclasses: I listened to two extremely talented students, one in the third grade, and the other, a violist of about sixteen years in age.

Philip Ficsor conducting a masterclass

Phil masterclass, Nyíregyháza I was very impressed with the level of preparation they demonstrated. Later, I listened to the school’s string orchestra, under the sensitive direction of Nándor Tóth. They were just beginning to learn some new works, but having since listened to a CD of theirs, I know the excellence they achieve in performance. Constantine also gave a masterclass. Constantin masterclass, Nyíregyháza He heard seven students in the space of only two hours! Given the fact that everything had to be translated (very ably done by István Jászberényi, a member of the guitar faculty) it was a wonder that he heard everyone. Shortly thereafter, we boarded a train back to Győr, the site of the next day’s concert.

Thursday, March 11th

This concert was to prove the most challenging experience of the tour because I was playing for my old teachers. This is always a strange experience, but it was especially challenging since I hadn’t seen any of them for ten years! That morning, I met with my old violin teacher, Mrs. Teréz Tripolszki. We spent a very enjoyable hour together at my favorite coffee house in all of Hungary, after which Constantine and I made our way over to the recital hall to rehearse for that evening’s concert. The recital hall was in my old school, the Hans Richter Conservatory of Music, and very little had changed since the last time I was there. It was wonderful to see that everyone remembered me and was extremely accommodating.

The concert started inauspiciously. After tuning up my violin, I discovered I had left my music backstage. I was faced with the distasteful choice of going backstage to retrieve it or play by memory. Since I had it by memory anyways, I chose the latter option. This was not great either because the only thing worse than playing from the music as if your life depended on it (using the music more as a crutch for lack of preparation), is making the pianist look like an accompanist in a sonata. It was the better of two bad choices. From there the concert improved, however, and by the end, we had really given the audience a good recital. Here came the real test: “what would my teachers think?” Not that it would make that much difference; if I’ve learned one thing in life, it is that the opinion of others shouldn’t determine the worth of one’s own best efforts. Nonetheless, other people’s opinions still make a difference. I needn’t have worried; everyone was very impressed and had thoroughly enjoyed the concert. Bolcom’s music was officially on the map in Hungary; their discerning tastes highly approved of all of his music, especially, of course, the Graceful Ghost.

Friday, March 12th

Once again we found ourselves on a train, this time to the southeastern part of Hungary, an area most characteristically identified in the minds of tourists as the “Puszta”. Rolling fields are dotted with whitewashed thatched roof farms, called “tanya,” which are surrounded by strategically placed wind-breaking trees. The area had an unmistakable aura of the comfortably disheveled romanticism that has been part and parcel of the Hungarian people’s noble history. Upon arriving in Kiskunhalas, we hopped onto another train, which took us the final short 12 kilometers to Kunfehértó, the village in which we would be staying. Although a small village of no more than a couple of thousand, it represents the most concentrated group of my relatives. After visiting the local general store, we had a good dinner consisting of liverwurst, fresh bread and homemade salami. Needless to say, we had a very restful sleep.

Saturday, March 13th

This day was a special day in the life of one of my cousins, Gábor Ficsor, as it was his wedding day. We attended the event in Soltvadkert, a wealthy grape-growing and wine-producing village about 30 kilometers to the northeast. Constantine and I contributed to the event by playing Tchaikovsky ’s Melodie. After the wedding, we went to the concert location to survey the situation for the next day’s concert. This concert was going to be a benefit for an ongoing building project. Although the piano was not as open bodied as most, the room was resonant and it proved to be quite adequate.

Sunday, March 14th

This morning opened with our attendance at the church service where later at 2:30, we would have our concert. We “advertised” the recital by playing the second movement of Brahms’ Sonata in D-minor, Op. 108. We were hopeful that a good crowd would show up, but were not prepared for the actual crowd that attended. Two hundred and eighty listeners, and the money raised was substantial. The concert itself went very well; perhaps the best out of the four concerts. The crowd, as we had come to expect, was enthusiastic and well-behaved; a complete joy to perform for. Our thanks to Béla Katona and all those contributors who made the event absolutely unforgettable. We’re looking forward to next year!

Monday, March 15th

This day is the July 4th of Hungarian history. It marks the beginning of the Hungarian Revolution against the Austrian occupiers. We were a little worried that everything would be closed to mark the holiday and that our one free day in Hungary would be spent “window shopping”. Many things were closed, but only to the extent that could be expected. Restaurants, and some tourist shops were open (thankfully for us, because we hadn’t had the time to do our shopping yet) as were the all-important coffee houses. We spent a couple of hours in the justly famous “Gellért Baths”. This was a tremendous experience, and highly recommended for anyone who is ever in Budapest. Lunch was spent at the Gellért hotel’s newly refurbished café. The food was absolutely out-of-this-world: roasted duck with freshly mashed potatoes. Budapest was resplendent in the Hungarian colors: red, white and green flags were flying proudly on every lamppost. This was the first whiff of Spring to hit Hungary while we there, and what terrific timing! We spent the day tooling around town. During the evening, we made our way over to Buda for dinner and stumbled on some enormous crowds, all gathered to mark the occasion. There were speeches, singing of the National Anthem and candles everywhere. It was all very inspiring.

Tuesday, March 16th

This last day started bright and early at 4:30 in the morning; our flight was due to leave at 7, and we were an hour away from the airport. The boarding process was uneventful, besides the fact that we ran into Marianna Spiegel, a music theory teacher from my days as a student in Győr. She was on her way to Berlin to teach an annual course in the Kodály method. This woman, all of four feet five inches tall, is a veritable dynamo of energy; what she lacks in height she makes up for in enthusiasm, intelligence and tenacity. She was and remains a role model to me for her “can-do” attitude towards life. While sitting aboard Malév flight 3936 back to the States, I looked back on what for us is a sign of bigger and better things to come. We were successful in a region where audiences are very sophisticated and that felt very rewarding. We have been invited back to every place we went, and are looking forward to an even more eventful tour next year!

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