MusiciansWho – Wednesday, 8th September, 2010.

The youngest member of the five-generation organist dynasty, András Gábor Virágh, considers himself lucky, because he managed to tackle his difficulties by learning. He used to play the organ at masses when he was in his teens, and he also taught others how to play the instrument and won several awards. Hard work yielded to great results: he occupied the organ bench of the St. Stephen Basilica, and in addition to his three-month student status at the Academy of Music starting this autumn, he will also teach as a lecturer in Debrecen, where his contemporaries will learn more about the basics of composing music. Viktória Avedikian talked with the young organist-musician and teacher.

Viktória Avedikian: As of 1st May, you are appointed as the lead organist of the St. Stephen’s Basilica. You had established ties to István Koloss, who died recently and whose position you are taking right now, and as far as I know, he had given you your first music lesson in composing. What is it like to replace the master? Do you sit down to the instrument thinking that you deserve this?

András Gábor Virágh: This is a feeling I can’t really describe. Every time I enter the Basilica, I hardly dare to believe it, because I didn’t expect to take his position – I know it sounds strange…

V.A.: István Koloss died unexpectedly last April, and this is how you got appointed.

G.A.V.: Yes, it happened quite unexpectedly, or unexpectedly for us. He died on 11th April, and he knew he had been seriously ill, but we hadn’t. Before that, we filled his position jointly for half a year, since he appointed me as his successor in September, some months before his death. That summer we sat down to talk, and he told me then that in a year’s time he would completely retire. He had listened to a number of players, and he picked me based on what he had heard. Obviously, it was necessary to create a period of transition, and I had to prove that I was reliable and could cooperate with the conductor, so there would be no break when taking over this role. Therefore, I wasn’t taken aback when I was appointed, but I wouldn’t have thought that God planned his retirement earlier. I have been practising as a church musician for more than 12 years, and during my career I have had the same duties that I have to fulfil here. It doesn’t primarily include playing the organ during the masses, but work with the choir and take part in their rehearsals. So I honestly hope and trust that I am worthy for this title.

V.A.: You mentioned how complex it is to be the organ player of the Basilica. From September, however, you will stand up from the organ bench from time to time, and give lectures at the Music Art Faculty at the University of Debrecen where finished the organ faculty. How can you arrange these two tasks in these two distant cities?

G.A.V.: Living at two places at the same time is not new to me, since when I started my second year in Debrecen, I also started my first year in music composition at the Academy of Music, and I was a director-organist of the “Kollégiumi Kántus” of Debrecen. In the meantime, I also taught at the mid-year cantor training, and quite frequently I played the organ in the Downtown Parish Church on Sundays at the ten o’ clock mass. It went like this for a few years, so it isn’t a big challenge for me to manage time across several tasks. Additionally, as I have told you, I’ve been a church organist since secondary school, or even since my years in primary school, and this always meant a number of extra tasks… Teaching composition like this may be unusual, because I teach students that do not attend the faculty of composing. The difficulties arising along the way may be because I have to explain things to students that are only a few years younger than me in a way that the subject matter would be interesting for them. Naturally, it will not be very easy in the beginning.

V.A.: Methodology is not the only difficulty, but it implies some responsibility as well…

G.A.V.: Indeed it does, especially because of the reasons I mentioned before. I have to prepare a lot for my classes. Teaching, on the other hand, is nothing new to me, because I held private lessons when I was 14. However, teaching a group requires a different presentation style and focus from the teacher, but I am very happy for this exercise, because I can think up innovative ways about the things I deal with every day. And practically speaking… In the long run, most of us need a stable position. And I was invited to teach at a university… What else could I ask for?

V.A.: We haven’t talked about your active work as a composer. You have proven that you can perform at a high level. You are starting your fourth year at the Academy of Music as the student of Gyula Fekete. Beyond your two jobs, when do you have time to compose creatively and attend classes?

G.A.V.: Composing is not like an instrument, since the time spent on composing is very often out of proportion with the “end result”. I know from my own experience that you can arrange your schedule to spend time on something that you really want to spend your time on. If I can’t make enough room in my schedule for composition then it seems that I’m not talented enough. But since composing is something I have been doing since the age of four. My mind is all around it from dawn till dusk, and dusk till dawn, so I “must” spend most of my time with composing and with masterpieces. If an idea pops in, having no time is simply not an option! When I travel on the train or bus, I also use my time well. Anyway, the screeching of the shock absorber of the bus also inspires me, and I know it does sound scary. Or how the sky changes hues. I know it is theatrical, but it is the truth.

V.A.: Recently, you won the composition competition at the Academy of Music with two special awards. How significant are these competitions during the course of your career as a composer? You have won the first prize at two international and three national competitions.

G.A.V.: These competitions are quite important for me because of one reason: I had no self-confidence as far as composing was concerned, and my own circles quite doubted my skills as well. So if I didn’t have these results, I probably wouldn’t compose, since after a while you need positive external feedback as well. I am always very critical about myself, and I criticise my own work a lot harder than others’ pieces. So I won’t feel that I am great because of these awards, but, for sure, they make me more secure and energize me to go on, since you cannot expect your things to go on as well as they are now. When I was 21, I won my first competition ever in 2006 in Los Angeles, at the International Composition Competition where no second or third prizes are given. This is how it all started, and this result gave a boost to my self-esteem and self-confidence. This is the competition my experience is based on, and then people in my immediate surroundings also accepted that composition must be taken more seriously on their behalf as well.

V.A.: At the composition competition, not only the first three prizes and special awards are important, but participation also means a lot, including the preparation to the competition. Have you ever written a piece as an application to a competition?

G.A.V.: I directly composed a piece for the two international composition competitions which I managed to win – the other one was organized in Nagyvárad, and no second prize was given. I read the terms for the competition in Los Angles in October 2005. I had to send the piece till June 2006. At that time, I really wanted to write a vocal piece, which I had never composed before. Then, at a concert, I heard the romantic, somewhat impressionist songs of Louis Vierne, a French composer, performed by Ildikó Szakács singer and István Bán organist. This is a song cycle consisting of three movements. I think this gave me the strongest inspiration. A little later, I was give a psalm book for my birthday with the lyrics of all 150 psalms in Latin and Hungarian, which I find of key importance, since a composer must know the meaning of each word in the lyrics. So these three things were necessary to compose one piece, so it is not my merit – my merit is only to reveal the connection.

V.A.: Looking at the many layers of activities that you do really bring up the question: are you a performing artist or rather a creative artist? And the third identity which we must emphasize: the teacher.

G.A.V.: I consider myself a composer, an organist and a teacher.

V.A.: How can you keep the balance? We have mentioned how everything relates to everything. What advice would you give to youngsters who are looking for their way, and do not dare or simply can’t run too many tasks parallel to each other, but may get to a point where they have to choose or figure out their schedule to make room for all activities and reveal the connections?

G.A.V.: Good question. I cannot put the answer in simple terms that would enlighten the reader, but one thing is sure: you have to get to know your physical and mental limits. Since my teenage years, I have exceeded my limits quite often… By balance, I don’t only mean professional balance, but also the idea that you sometimes have to relax your mind, soul and also look after your body, because being a musician implies sporting activities as well. Basically, composing, as well as concerts and teaching, are activities that take place next to the desk or the instrument, so you will always need stamina. In addition to your own spirit, you have to get to know your own body, and you have to learn to respect it properly for the service it gives you day by day. The key for me, however, is that you have to get to know your boundaries. And one more thing: you have to set your priorities.

V.A.: You have mentioned physical stamina. What do you do to achieve this?

G.A.V.: I go swimming when I can, but I can manage to go once a week only, because I have no more time for it. Sometimes I compose ten hours a day, and in order not to go insane, I stop for ten minutes every hour and do some exercises.

V.A.: Do you use the Kovács method? As far as I know, it is possible in the Academy.

G.A.V.: No, I am not familiar with it, but I have heard about it. Even if I compose, practise or play at six weddings on a Saturday, I do exercises for ten minutes every hour – anything from push-ups to head circle exercises. It is really worth it. I have a series of 5-10-minute exercises that I always repeat before concerts, and I have been doing that for years.

V.A.: And how do you fill up mentally?

G.A.V.: A good movie, meeting friends and acquaintances, talking, or even watching a football match, but in fact I can recharge with anything. And if I can’t, I’m simply not in the mood. I have to find what my mental state requires in that second so that I can indeed relax and recharge, but it is all up to me.

V.A.: You are quite young and have experienced success – not only in Hungary, but abroad as well. If you were ever invited abroad, would you stand up from the bench of the Basilica’s organ?

G.A.V.: No, I wouldn’t. I don’t know where I’d be in ten or twenty years’ time, but I want to do what I’m doing now at a higher level and hopefully with a lot more knowledge and experience behind my back. On the other hand, I would not quit, since I have already been abroad. For a year, I was learning liturgy organ play from the Austrian Peter Planyavsky, the organist of Stephansdom in Vienna – and I did learn a lot from him. I got acquainted with the way of life and mentality there, and I know full well how the job invitations work in Western Europe. I practically have no chance to get a similar job as an organist or a professor at a university – I should have been born there. I have seen some serious job opportunities in Austria, and even though an applicant from Hungary or from any other country would have been better for the job, eventually it was always an Austrian who actually took the position. I would possibly not get a better opportunity abroad. I could be a guest lecturer for a while, but that is a different case, because when you are there, then you are extremely happy about it, but you are happier when you get home. One thing is sure: it all depends on recognizing and seizing the moment.


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