Born in Budapest on the 17th of April 1956, Gábor Takács-Nagy owes his musical awakening to the communist educational system, oriented towards the arts, and to his grandmother who would sing him Hungarian folk songs. " These folk songs were my first musical memories. I then started playing the violin at eight and that was it". After having played the violin for forty years, Takács-Nagy switched to conducting. His style is very joyful, expressive and, let's say it, enthusiastic. An enthusiasm, which is capable, like a tornado, of carrying away its whole surrounding, furniture included. Gábor Takács-Nagy himself admits his need to sometimes channel his excitement. “To avoid starting to jump on stage like a fool, I write myself notes in Hungarian in my score which remind me to keep calm.” Besides being a great conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy is also a person who loves to laugh. When I asked him for an interview, he was standing with his black tailed suit on the lawn just in front of the artist’s entrance of the Bellerive summer festival, near Geneva. While others were concentrating backstage, Gabor was telling jokes to every person passing by. There was one about three Jewish mothers who meet for tea and who speak about how amazing their sons are. The last one said something about how her son would go once a week see the most expensive and sought after shrink of New York City, just to speak about her.
We met for coffee a few weeks later at the Hôtel des Bergues in Geneva. Our rendez-vous was orchestrated by his wife Lesley de Senger who takes care, as he himself explains in this interview, of managing his entire life. “Without her I would be nothing.”
How many hours of sleep do you need per night?
6 or 7.
Are you an early bird?
For sure. My best work is done very early in the morning, sometimes around 5 or even 4:30.
How did you fall into violin?
I was in school in Budapest where at the time music was a big part of the educational system. In the kindergarten we were learning the Kodaly method and I remember singing a lot. Since I was known to have a good ear and to always sing in tune, my parents decided to put me in a musical school in which everybody had to start playing an instrument at the age of 8. One day a gentleman opened the classroom door and said, “Who would like to play the violin?” I immediately raised my hand. It could have been any another instrument, piano, cello, or trumpet, I would probably also have immediately raised my hand. So that’s how I fell into violin. And it went well, the teachers would say I was talented, I won competitions. However, at 16 I said, “I’m no longer doing this.”
Pain. I would experience lots of emotions while playing and would constantly lift my shoulders in a damaging way. I was in reality working a lot and badly. I arrived at a point where I couldn’t cope with the pain any longer. Because I was only 16, I decided to change direction. I stopped violin and went towards wine-making. I knew about gardening and grapes and it seemed to be the best alternative, or at least an alternative. After a year of not touching my violin Ferenc Halasz, one of the best Hungarian violin teachers approached me. We met in a cafeteria and he told me, Gabor, don’t give up the violin. He told me that he would teach me how to play violin again. He promised me that I would only need one year to relearn how to play the instrument, that I would no longer have pain and that I would then get into the music academy. He also told me a joke. A Catholic priest, a Lutheran priest and a rabbi are having dinner together. Suddenly the cook comes out and says – the mushroom you have eaten is poisonous. We need to call a doctor. The doctor comes, looks at them and says – unfortunately I can’t do anything. You only have 60 minutes left. So what do they do? The Catholic priest says, I will pray. The Lutheran priest says I will of course pray but I will also say goodbye to my family. And the rabbi, what does the rabbi do? – How much time do I have? asks the rabbi. 60 minutes, says the doctor. – I will look for another doctor, says the rabbi.
Ferenc Halasz told me "Gabor, I’m this other doctor, don’t give up. You still have 60 minutes." And he managed. He saved me. He brought me back to music.
And what happened then?
At 19, I formed the Takács Quartet with friends from the academy. This gave us lots of freedom under the communist regime. We won competitions, received recognition which enabled us to travel. When I was 23, we won a big English competition presided by Menuhin. It opened the door to the West. In 1986, we left Hungary illegally.
Our quartet got an offer from the University of Colorado to teach for one year and to give a series of concerts. One year only. Then we were supposed to go back. But we never did.
You knew before leaving that you would never go back?
Yes, we knew. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, communism had opened up a little. The other members of the quartet had already married and had tiny children. They were allowed to come to Colorado with their wives and children, which would not have been possible before Gorbachev. I was the only one without a family and I was also the only one who didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in Budapest. But because leaving was a guarantee to be free to travel and to play all over the world, I reluctantly agreed. You can’t imagine how depressed my mother was to see her royal son leave. Yet, it gave us many advantages. We immediately got a contract with Columbia, an American agency which was much better than any other communist agency. And because I was very ambitious and would work a lot, I somehow managed to overcome the culture shock. As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, I immediately went back to Budapest. And till today I go there regularly.
We say that members of a quartet rarely sleep in the same hotel, was this the case for you?
No, we stayed in the same hotel, but we were fed up with each other. It’s like in a marriage. The number one rule is to know that if you are fed up with the others’ stupidity, they are also fed up with your stupidity.
When and why did you stop playing violin?
the way my thumb would hold the bow. To play violin, the hand must remain unbelievably flexible. I developed a problem which is probably psychological as it would only occur in concerts. My thumb would become rigid. During practice, I could play but as soon as I was on stage a stiffness would arise and it became worse and worse. I went to see all the doctors in the world, tried everything, all kinds of medicines. I even tried alcohol which I had never done before, but nothing helped. I never managed to fix this. This is the biggest defeat in my life. But you know there is a saying that playing the violin is a lifelong battle which you eventually end up losing.
In 1992 I stopped playing in the quartet and came to Geneva. I had just married Lesley de Senger and we had a daughter. I didn’t have a job, I had nothing. I passed from being a successful artist travelling all over the world to nothing. In 1997, I finally found a professorship at the Haute école de musique de Genève. But for 5 years I had nothing.
Not nothing, as I was in fact still playing the violin. I went back to the same teacher who had retaught me how to learn the violin when I was 17. But this time he didn’t manage to unblock my thumb. I also became the first violin of the Budapest orchestra, which was the best orchestra in Hungary.
So, far from nothing. You could play?
Yes, but in a limited way. I was still a better player than the average, but I was not as good as when I was a string quartet leader. As a string quartet leader, you have to be a first-class player. In the orchestra, one can hide a little. So I didn’t give up violin entirely but I for sure never returned to my level. In 2007 I also recorded, with another quartet, the whole set of Bartok string quartets in Budapest. In a recording studio I could still play with 90% of my previous capacities. On stage, I was only 40%.
How did you decide to become a conductor?
I wanted to conduct but I didn’t know how. In 1991, we played a Mozart piano quartet with Georg Solti who was a fantastic pianist. During the rehearsal, Solti came up to me and said, Gabor your body language is so clear, you could be a brilliant conductor. So let’s say that from 1991 on, I was caressing this idea of one day conducting. But you cannot just approach an orchestra and say hello, I would like to conduct but I never conducted in my life. By chance, I was asked to conduct the Sion Academy Orchestra at the 2002 expo in Biel. It was my first time. I immediately fell in love with it and since then, I never stopped. Conducting brought me back on stage and, in a way, saved me.
You have been in several positions. String quartet leader, first violin, conductor. What is your link to the musicians of an orchestra?
The risk in playing in an orchestra is that it can become just like any other job. When I was playing in a quartet every note was important for me. When you are in an orchestra, you are always with the same people and you can get a little burned out. It’s not the case for everybody, but the risk is getting trapped in a daily job routine. Some musicians play in an orchestra as if they were in a boring marriage. More than the physicality or the music, the number one difficulty for the conductor is to stimulate the orchestra, to know how to wake up the motor. And to do so, you cannot be totally normal. You have to psychologically surprise them every 5 or 6 minutes. I’m generally either singing, dancing, playing the violin or making jokes. I’m deliberately not acting totally normal in front of the orchestra.
To keep them awake?
Yes, to make them interested. Because if an orchestra wants to play well they play well but if they don’t want to play well they don’t play well. It’s like with a child. To involve the orchestra in something you have to awaken their passion. You always need to be a little surprising, never too square, always a little cuckoo.
Are there groups of instruments that are more difficult to handle than others?
Yes. The brass players can occasionally have an intimidating eye. You speak to them, look at them enthusiastically and they sometimes just look straight back at you as if to say they will not enter your game. But to do this profession one should never be intimated or irritated by such things. The challenge of being a conductor lies in how to bring your orchestra to its maximum potential.
Do you have routines, rituals before going on stage?
I have to work very hard. If I really know what I’m doing, if I really feel that I’m prepared, I can, once I’m on stage, change my nervous energy into creative energy.
So you need to be a little nervous?
Everybody is nervous before a concert. But if I’m well prepared this nervousness transforms itself into creative energy on stage. You also need, on stage, to accept yourself. To accept who you are. With your weaknesses. I learned a lot from an interview of Roger Federer in which he explained that the biggest danger is to try to prove something. If you try to prove something, for instance that you are very good at what you are doing, you will get stressed and be less good at what you are doing. Before I go on stage, I tell myself – be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else. I will make some mistakes, but it’s normal. I will do with my heart everything I can do. I’m not here to prove anything – love the piece, be yourself.
Any other routine before a concert?
I need to sleep. Before a concert, I have a nap and then I look again alone through the whole program.
Your enthusiasm is for sure one of your trademarks.
In music I feel like a fish in water. Because I know that I’m not very talented in many other fields, music gives me an extra base. This is my communication. On the stage I ‘m always more courageous. And this enthusiasm, well I can sometimes hardly even control myself. I find myself writing in the score in Hungarian, “calm down, calm down” just to not start jumping around like a stupid idiot. You really find that I’m enthusiastic?
What’s the role of Lesley in your life, is she also your agent?
Actually yes. Without her I would be nothing. I don’t know how I could do anything without Lesley. She runs our home, she organizes our daughters. She organizes everything. And she allows me the time I need to study my scores. I need time. I’m not a genius and I feel the need to work a lot. I always did.
You work every day?
Yes always, even on holiday I learn.
I love reading, I cannot sleep without reading. I read lots of composer stuff, composer lives.
Do you compose?
No. I tried but it was nul.
Do you do sport?
I love sport! I try to do 30 minutes of speed walking every morning. It puts you in such a good mood. I also I watch football and tennis. Since I’m a child. In communist Hungary every Sunday there was a football game and my parents would tell me – if you don’t practice violin enough during the week you will not be able to watch the match over the weekend. I would then work hard to be sure to be able to watch the match.
Did you parents push you a lot?
No, it wasn’t a harsh pushing but they for sure motivated me.
Do you have a mentor or a conductor that inspires you?
I have a soft spot for old conductor recordings. Like Furtwängler. I love Bruno Walter, Carlos Kleiber. I also very much like Simon Rattle.
Can you say something about the music world today?
In the 1970s, the number one important thing in education was spirituality. The spiritual message. In class, if you made some mistakes, if you were out of tune or not together, it was tolerated. What was not tolerated was to play without heart and without spirituality. In today’s education it’s exactly the opposite. Our education is more technically oriented and the spirituality and the character, the inner life of the music is no longer so important. That’s my impression. Music became much more about success and technical perfection. But technical perfection has nothing to do with spiritual perfection.
Very strange. Music is a spiritual medicine. It’s a spirituality which uplifts people from their own problems and if you immerse yourself totally, spiritually in music you forget your ego. You forget your own problems. Music is the best way to get rid of yourself.
If you could reincarnate, choose the era, the country, the profession, the gender – who would you be?
I would come back at the end of the 19th century as an actor or a singer in Seattle. I love Seattle. Or I would come back today as a doctor.
Let’s say you are a philanthropic billionaire and you are obliged to give away some of your money. What cause would you support?
Oh I know what to do! Something with the education of young artists. In all kinds of arts. And I would also create my own music academy with a concert hall. I would teach and organise lots of young orchestra concerts. I would have an academy whose aim would be to give confidence to young artists.
This might be the case one day.
I won’t become a billionaire. But if I were, I would also record one the 44symphonies of Haydn. I’m crazy about Haydn and his symphonies. I would record them with youngsters and with the very best recording company.