Kaposvár, a perfectly preserved 19th-century city in southwest Hungary, is breathing new energy into its sleepy small-town pace. Their summer arts festival, called Kaposfest, is in its third incarnation after the past two years’ experiments to see what would best serve the community and provide a desirable platform for musicians and artists. Judging by what I experienced there from Aug. 14-20, Kaposfest has created a harmonious success with seven days of music with accompanying art exhibits and touristic activities for families.
The music festival is organized by cellist/entrepreneur György Bolyki and violinist Katalin Kokas, a member of the Kelemen String Quartet and a native of Kaposvár. They planned a schedule of 15 concerts performed by some of Europe’s most established artists as well as young award-winning international classical musicians. The programming was a mix of baroque and classical repertoire, contemporary works, vocal music, Hungarian gypsy music, tango (with dancers), and Hungarian folk music. Their concert venue was a 1928 art-deco theater called Szivárvány Zeneha (Rainbow Music Hall), a former cinema house, which houses two Steinway grand pianos and has perfect acoustics for chamber music. An additional venue, for a local gospel choir’s supplementary program, was a charming church whose interior decor had an 1890s ambience.
From those 15 concerts, featuring 51 musicians, one notable high point was an entertaining interpretation of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” This ubiquitous piece, usually played in a serious fashion, was here reinvented by the wit and genius of several players on Aug. 18. Violinists Pekka Kuusisto, Alina Ibragimova, Mikhail Ovrutsky and Barnabás Kelemen shared the virtuoso solos, but with audaciously theatrical approach. First, they had a speaker intone the descriptive Italian annotations from the score, with Hungarian and English supertitles shown above the stage. Second, they emphasized the drama, often comically, with extreme contrasts of volume and tempo. One repeated note from the viola imitated a barking dog, and other effects suggested the hot sun, singing doves, a hail storm, and a furious swarm of flies and hornets. It’s fun to imagine it might have been the kind of musical entertainment Vivaldi originally had in mind.
Other ensemble highlights include the Kelemen Quartet’s (Barnabás Kelemen, Katalin Kokas, Gábor Homoki, Dóra Kokas) impassioned reading of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet in E-flat minor; Kelemen’s and cellist Nicolas Altstaedt’s breathtaking performance of Zoltan Kodaly’s Duo for Violin and Cello; the sparkling rendition of Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major by Ibragimova, Homoki, cellist Alexander Rudin, bassist Zsolt Féjervári and pianist Zoltan Kocsis; as well as the Kelemen Quartet’s fierce emotionalism in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” string quartet, which was preceded by a recording of the Schubert song (with the same title) it’s based on. The blistering performance of Shostakovich’s heroic and haunting String Octet, opus 11; and the rich resonance of Richard Strauss’s composition from his sunset years, “Metamorphoses,” glowed with astonishing intensity. Pianists Gallardo, Kocsis, Anna Laasko and Shai Wosner, and Jonathan Cohen on harpsichord did yeoman’s work on the keyboards throughout.
Lighter ensemble treats were David Popper’s warmly sentimental “Requiem for Three Cellos and Piano” played by Rudin, Altstaedt, Kokas and pianist José Gallardo; Leo Weiner’s “First Divertimento” for string quintet, for which he arranged Hungarian peasant songs in different regional styles; and extemporaneous fiddling by Kuusisto and/or Hungarian folk groups while stagehands changed furniture.
Solo performances included two singers from the Budapest State Opera: Soprano Ilona Tokody and tenor András Muskát sang songs and arias. Most notable was Tokody’s fine dramatic sensibility in Ottorino Respighi’s “Il Tramonto (The Sunset),” a cantata for singer and string quartet. One of the most heartwarming soloists was a 14-year-old boy, cellist Gergely Devich. A recent winner of the Anton Frischl Hungarian National Youth Prize, Devich performed with wonderful alacrity in French baroque duos with Altstaedt, and with touching sensitivity in Liszt’s “Liebestraum” with pianist Kocsis. At the other end of the age spectrum, 90-year-old violinist Ivry Gitlis graced the stage for some semi-serious music-making with the classics between kibitzing with the audience and his colleagues.
Several local art galleries and museums opened special exhibits that pertained to Kaposvár’s history for the week’s festivities. One celebrated the 100th birthday of a famous Kaposvár native, photographer Juan (born János) Gyenes, whose photographs of hundreds of musicians, celebrities, members of royalty and politicians were on display. Another gallery hosted a contemporary art exhibit that took its theme from the concept of chamber music. Art historian and curator János Sturcz invited 22 young painters to contribute their work for a competition; the public will vote on its favorite painting and its artist will receive a cash prize. A local cafe hosted public lectures about the music performed on the concerts, and a hotel hosted a film club to discuss film scores.
One of my greatly anticipated joys in visiting a music festival in Hungary is the possibility of hearing the music of Hungarian composers. Luckily, the schedule was chock-full of fascinating music by Béla Bartók, Ernst von Dohnányi, Jenö Pertis, György Kurtág, Jenö Hubay, Zoltán Kodály, Popper and Weiner. As a bonus, a special genre of gypsy music -- the Budapest cafe style, was performed by violinist Oláh Ernö and his band. The grand finale on Aug. 20, which was St. Stephen’s Day, a Hungarian national holiday, began with a military band ceremony in the town square in the morning, and ended with an evening performance of Dohnányi’s magnificently ecstatic Piano Quintet in E-flat, Opus 26 at midnight.