Interview with József Balog

You have performed as a virtuoso pianist at a large number of concerts organised by Filharmonia Hungary for young people. Would you share with us some ideas about your role in music education?

Approximately 13-14 thousand children have attended these concerts that were moderated by Tamás Lakner whose role can’t be overestimated, since he really speaks the language of the children. We have selected very spectacular compositions, and the concerts were largely interactive that also contributed to the success. There was an idea to project the image of my hand, and in this world full of visual stimuli this proved to be a good idea. The concerts have been really successful and according to student-feedbacks those who didn’t like to practice playing afterwards felt that it is worth the effort. In the new season I have also met with rocker-style kids asking when I was coming next. I think that with the help of colourful and interactive concerts children can be attracted to the world of classical music. It goes without saying that we shouldn’t expect that everybody will enjoy classical music, but if we can win 5-10% of the audience then we have already done a good job.

What is your advise to those who are at the beginning of their career? In addition to talent what is the key to success?  

Commitment is very important, and motivation is also crucial and necessary to learn to practice at one’s own initiatives. In case of students of the academy motivation isn’t the key issue, but in case of younger children it is important to discover their talent and put them on the right track.

This has not been your first time as a professor at the Bartók Seminar. What kind of changes have you experienced over the years? 

It is really striking to observe the development of those who return. One of them said that he did not want to go back to his previous teacher and he was really looking forward to returning. I think the average standard is higher than last year, this is also due to the larger number of students we have. I am really glad that we receive many students from the academy and there are many more students coming from different parts of the country. And the most obvious sign of success is that even on Saturday, following the closing concert the students still want to continue playing with me.

Could you share with us your experience about working together with the students at your course?

I don’t have a set working method, but in the beginning of the course I always listen to the full composition, in order to be able to decide what is worth dealing with. Everybody needs to improve in a different area. It is of primary importance for the teacher to assess the development of the students and what they need, because we should never force our ideas on them, rather we should give them tools that they can use to develop their own talent. Every student is different, and requires a different approach. There are some who don’t need a lot of motivation, but there are others who require a lot of instruction.

How do you prepare for a master course?

I don’t really need any additional preparation, as I believe I have a lot of routine, but I always look up the compositions that the students prepare. I also browse the cv-s of the applicants, as I am really interested in them, but the most important thing for me is how they play. It is a difficult job, because we have little time to evaluate their skills, but I am trying to do that with the help of monitoring their playing.

You have held master courses in many different places. In what way is the Bartók Festival different?

I think this is a place where we need to spend as much time on Bartók as possible, this is why I ask the students applying for the master course to bring a Bartók composition with themselves. I also insist that the students should play as many Bartók compositions at the gala concert as possible. Fortunately this generation loves Bartók and they feel at ease when playing his compositions.

Your concert last night was a great success. In the second half of it you played László Vidovszky’s The death of Schroeder, a composition that hasn’t been performed since 1975, when Zoltán Kocsis played it. Was this a special occasion for you?

Unfortunately I haven’t heard the performance of Zoltán Kocsis, but I have heard how difficult the composition is, and that even the audience was divided over it at the time. I knew that this was a notorious musical composition, but I really like challenges and I already looked up the notes last year. I think it was an excellent idea to perform it at the Bartók         Festival, and it became a huge success, the audience was really eager. It was also a good idea to draw the students into the performance, and we also projected on the screen when they dissected the piano, since showing what happens to the inside of the piano is also part of the performance and the audience must see this. The experience of performing was similar to that of running a marathon.

What is your opinion about the International Bartók Seminar and Festival?

It is one of the most prestigious national festivals, and as such one of the primary events of Hungarian music, so it should continue in the future in order to keep up the tradition. The professors invited are internationally recognised professionals, so the tradition is well looked after.

How do you feel yourself during the course?

Very well, I get a lot of positive feedback from the students. They like it here, they enjoy playing music.

Your new album, The way of Folksong came out last summer, and it was recorded on the piano of Béla Bartók. How did you feel when playing the master’s piano?

It was my idea to use the piano for the recording that Bartók used for composing them. This is a Bösendorfer piano, with a sensitivity and soul that contemporary pianos lack. Among other things, in the bass section of the piano there are additional keys that contemporary instruments don’t have. I have also recorded seven piano compositions by Kodály, since Kodály marked these additional notes that can’t be played on a contemporary instrument. It has been a wonderful experience for me when together with the Folk Music Department of the Academy of Music we have recorded all the different folk songs of Bartók.

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