Frankly Music:Tamas Varga, Vienna Phil’s principal cellist

Frankly Music brings cellist Varga, violinist Frank Almond, pianist Stephan Beus together Monday and Tuesday.
January 12th, 2013 |
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Tamas Varga, principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic, will perform on Frankly Music programs Monday and Tuesday.

The principal cellist of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will play in the 100-seat recital hall at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Monday and Tuesday (Jan. 14-15), on Frankly Music concerts. How on earth did that happen?

Tamás Varga, the cellist in question, explained it Saturday from Hunstville, Ala., where he would play the Dvorak concerto with the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra Saturday night. The connection turned out to be Gregory Vajda, music director of the HSO, formerly resident conductor with the Milwaukee Symphony. Vajda, 39, and Varga, 43, are both from Budapest and from roughly the same Hungarian musical generation. Vajda is also principal conductor of the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra; Varga was that orchestra’s principal cellist before he joined the Vienna Philharmonic in 1998.

The Milwaukee engagement happened “because of Gregory,” Varga said. “I had two engagements in the U.S., here and in Miami with the New World Symphony and Michael Tilson-Thomas [Jan. 26-27]. I couldn’t spend eight days doing nothing, and I couldn’t go home and be jet lagged and fly back and be jet-lagged. Gregory said, ‘Talk to Frank, he has this series.”

Frank would be Frank Almond, concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony and director of Frankly Music. Almond, naturally, welcomed an inquiry from the principal cellist of one of the world’s most renowned orchestras.

“We decided to share a program, with solo cello works on the first half and trio on the second,” said Varga, who is due to arrive in Milwaukee Sunday. “We’d have enough time to put that together.”

Varga will play György Ligeti’s Sonata for Cello Solo, Jaques Ibert’s Ghirlarzana, and Hans Gál’s Sonata for Cello Solo and then join Almond and pianist Stephen Beus in Brahms’ Trio in C.

“The Ligeti is an early piece,” Varga said. “He was still like Kodaly and Bartók, very connected to Hungarian folk music. The first movement is like an old person sitting down to sing a folk song for himself.”

Gál (1890-1987) grew up in Vienna but was ethnic Hungarian and from a Jewish family. He was a rising star in German and Austrian music, but the Nazi’s banned him and his music in 1933, and in 1938 fled to England, where he remained active in music until his death.

“Gál was a student of Brahms,” Varga said. “This is a late Romantic, a post-Romantic piece. He is not well-known in Hungary. He is one of those composers who was well known in his lifetime but then forgotten. He is being rediscovered.”

We associate Ibert with light, fleet music; Ghirlarzana is brief, but weighty and somber. Varga called it “a meditation, really just a thought, an atmosphere.”

After the Milwaukee concerts, Varga will go to Chicago to lead master classes at Northwestern University and elsewhere, then on to Miami. This is his idea of a vacation.

“I’m 15 years with the orchestra, so I get three weeks off,” he said.

The Vienna Philharmonic is unique in its governance. Unlike every other major European orchestra, it gets no government subsidy. It plays about 300 performances a year for the Vienna State Opera and puts on 85 symphonic concerts of its own. It runs as a sort of co-op; the players essentially own it. They have have no music director; they book in conductors they like. They choose their leaders from their ranks.

“The president of the orchestra is a violinist,” Varga said. “The orchestra manager is a flutist. We play chamber music together; if we have a suggestion or a question, we don’t need to make an appointment with the manager. If we like a conductor, we develop a relationship. We see no urgent need for change. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere.”

The structure gives Varga the leeway to lead a double life as a soloist and orchestra player. Friendly, skilled colleagues can fill the first chair when he’s away on an engagement.

“It’s good to go away and be alone and the stage and show what you can do as a soloist,” he said. “But I’m happy to go home and play operas and concerts as part of a great orchestra. It’s a nice combination, a great life.”

These Frankly Music performances begin at 7 p.m., Mon. Jan. 14 and Tues. Jan. 15. Purchase tickets online or call (414) 940-8770. The Wisconsin Conservatory of Music is at 1584 N. Prospect Ave.

Don’t miss anything; bookmark Matthew Reddin’s comprehensive 2012-13 TCD Guide, sponsored by the Florentine Opera, to all of Milwaukee’s performing arts groups. And be sure to check Danielle McClune’s Milwaukee This Week, baked fresh every Tuesday.

Finally, it must be Cello Week in Milwaukee. Read about the Sunday concert and far-flung musical activities of MSO cellist Peter Thomas.

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