Interview with István Párkai Kossuth Prize-winning conductor

I spoke to István Párkai, 82-year-old Kossuth Prize-winning conductor, the master of generations of Hungarian choir conductors, before the first concert of the “Maestro” choir season of the Cantemus Choir of Nyíregyháza.

 – Conductor, pianist, retired professor, honorary president of the Association of Hungarian Choirs and Orchestras, founder of the Liszt Ferenc Chamber Choir. Between 1938 and 1955 he studied at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied piano with Béla Ambrózy from 1938 to 1953, and from 1950 to 1955 he attended the conductor training school, where he graduated as a student of László Somogyi. If I count exactly 17 years, of course there was a world war in between, but his studies were still quite long. Why?

– The teaching system was very different then. You could start from scratch, and it wasn’t even called a school for the gifted. There were admissions, but there was a lot more selection, a lot of people dropped out and of course some went on to further education. So I could have graduated in 1953, but in 1950 I also applied to the conducting course and graduated there. As a fourth-year conductor trainee, I became an assistant teacher at the academy.

 – Did you have a family background in music?

 – Not necessarily. Of course, I’ve had examples before. My mother had a teaching certificate, but she also studied musicto give you a familiar name – for examplePongrác Kacsóh. And my father played the piano to quite a high degree, although he was a man with a technical degree. He was working for the railways on motor cars.

Why the switch from a career as a pianist to a conductor?

 – I wasn’t that outstanding a pianist, and since my interests were wide-ranging, I thought it would be worthwhile to do the conducting course once I got there. I went to sing in a lot of choirs, for example the Budapest Choir, of which Miklós Forrai was conductor at the time. I learned a lot of oratorios there.

After such a long time in the field, can you differentiate between generations in terms of knowledge, mentality, skills?

 – My feeling is that you can’t make much of a difference because there have always been, and hopefully will continue to be, outstanding individuals. The fact that the world around us is changing is at most a reflection of how smoothly you can make it in music or how much you have to fight for success. We are now in a period where few people are being accepted to artist training and of course there is a consequence of this in that the average has certainly deteriorated. It is much more difficult to create a stand-out individual because the environment is not there, or if you are very talented you do not have to work so hard to be successful.

Of those who have been admitted, can you tell from the start which of them will be outstandingly talented?

 – No. You can only see that he has a great and deep interest. There were quite a few – especially among the boys who were slower to catch up and showed their “lion’s claws” later.

Do you stay in touch with old students?

 – I keep it and especially with those who contact me. It’s almost impossible to get to everybody in the whole country, but I often get invitations to events that they know I can’t go to, but they still let me know because they want me to know where they are.

Why did you accept the Cantemus invitation, Professor?

 – I didn’t seek the opportunity, but I gladly accepted when I was asked to conduct the Cantemus choirs in a concert. In this case, the strange situation arose that I had been conducting Déné Szabó for two or three years. but not Soma, because he was not in my group, but I kept in touch with him, because at that time I was still conducting the university choir where he was singing.

How well did you know the work at Cantemus?

 – Quite a few of my colleagues have been here and there have been years when they regularly brought college students here to attend classes and observe the work being done. It’s quite obvious that the results that choirs here achieve – however you want to sugarcoat it – are ultimately the result of Sisyphean effort, because otherwise it’s impossible to achieve such results. And, of course, let us not forget that this requires a certain kind of – to put it mildly – “hard training”.

Teacher was awarded the Liszt Prize in 1973, and then, one after the other, came the well-deserved awards, the crowning glory of which was the Kossuth Prize in 2007. After all this recognition, do you still feel lacking? What is it that you still long for?

 – I don’t know how much these awards came in a row, but I think that what can be achieved in this profession in this respect – not that I consider it to be so decisive – I have really achieved. I do sometimes think that I would like to re-do some of the pieces that I did back then. One such occasion was two years ago, when I had the opportunity to perform Poulenc’s cantata “Human Face” with the Kodály Choir in Debrecen, which I had last conducted more than 20 years before. It was a great experience. So I still have such thoughts.

How do you assess the current state of demanding music and music education in the country?

 – I think that the situation has deteriorated all over the world, it’s not necessarily a Hungarian speciality or negligence. The world is heading in that direction at the moment, but fortunately there is always a strong core of people who are holding the front. One can be confident that there will always be an interested layer of humanity for whom this side of music is a source of joy and delight.

(Szilad Szilagyi)