For our Hungary issue, I needed look no further than the cantina of our Philharmonie. My good friend and colleague Miklós Nagy (Miki to his pals) is solo horn of the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, as well as being a renowned soloist and member of the Budapest Festival Horn Quartet. We met recently and discussed his education, influences, philosophy, and of course, those famous high notes. Egészségére! -KMT
Kristina Mascher-Turner: So, Miki, the first thing our readers will want to know is, how do you play those high notes? What's your secret?
Miklós Nagy: There is no secret, I think. When I was young, I loved Baroque music very much. I listened to more trumpet than horn music. I especially loved Maurice André - his recordings, his performances, his high playing. I tried to translate this kind of playing to the horn. Unfortunately I couldn't play the trumpet, but I looked for Baroque horn music and bought a lot of Hans Pizka's editions of unknown Baroque concertos, over 20 pieces. This influenced my high horn playing. Objectively, the high horn needs a trumpet-style embouchure. The horn embouchure makes it very difficult to play above high C or D - even the best players have trouble with this. Another factor is the descant horn. If you play above the 12th natural overtone, it's hard, and a lot of mistakes can happen. When I was 18 years old and went to the Music Academy, I didn't have my own instrument. There was an old Alexander 107 descant horn in storage at the school. The valves didn't work, and it was in bad shape. I rebuilt it and started to play it, and immediately the high notes came easier and better than before. Also, my first teacher at the Music Academy, Imre Magyarí, was a good high horn player who could play many Baroque concertos without mistakes. He told me I could do it too. I wanted to imitate him. I trained myself day by day, always one half tone higher, one half tone higher, played Bach and Handel orchestral excerpts, found exercises to train the high horn. I trained almost every day in this way.
KMT: So, in other words, there's no shortcut - you don't wake up in the morning and go, "Ding! I've got that top octave!"
MN: No, unfortunately not. (laughs)
KMT: While we're talking about that, can you tell us about your early musical education? I understand in Hungary, this begins at a very young age.
MN: In my day, in the 1950's-1980's, we had the Kodály pedagogy system. All children had to study music. At the elementary school, there were two separate classes, the normal and the music classes. And the parents could select one of them.
KMT: So, it was the parents who chose, not the child?
MN: The parents chose. My mother loves classical music. She had season tickets for the Budapest Opera House. She never played an instrument, but she loved it. So she chose the music class for me. Every day we had music lessons - singing, solfège, chorus - and from the second grade (age 7) we started a musical instrument. My music teacher told me, "You are quite tall, left-handed...go to the horn teacher." So she took me to the horn teacher. The horn teacher gave me a horn and a mouthpiece, and said,"Come next week and play." This is my short story of starting the horn at the age of 7.
KMT: What was your first instrument?
MN: It was a Josef Lidl Brno F/compensating Bb horn. Lidl Brno, very bad instrument. I have one at home now. (Laughter)
KMT: You still have it!
MN: On the wall!
KMT: Who were your most influential teachers?
MN: The first one was in the elementary school, Gyula Gergely. Then Imre Magyarí and Ádám Friedrich. Gyula Gergely was a horn player in the Budapest Opera and taught at my school. He taught well and also led a brass band - it was very nice. We had concerts in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary, as well as a summer music camp. There are a lot of stories and a lot of friends from the brass band. Four of my good friends in Hungary were from this band.
KMT: So you stayed friends.
MN: Yes, for more than 40 years! 45 years! Gergely was my first influence. When I was 14, I changed teachers. The music school system in Hungary is very unique, with a special music high school. Only Hungary (Béla Bartók Music School) and East Germany (Bach-Hochschule) had this system. Here we had only four hours of academics, and all afternoon, from 2 until 8, music, music, music. Two one-hour horn lessons, chamber music, piano, solfège, harmony, chorus, orchestra, for 4 years. It was hard, but whoever studied at the Béla Bartók music school could be a musician afterwards.
KMT: And what about Ádám Friedrich?
MN: When I was 14, he taught at the music high school, and I studied with him for 4 years. Then one of the most important things in my life happened. I won 1st prize in a young musicians' competition in Szczecinek in the north of Poland in May, 1978. My prize was 2 weeks of summer camp in Poland in August. Edwin Golnik, he was the big professor in Poland, changed my embouchure. Before that I played with an "einsetzen" embouchure, and he changed that - told me to put the mouthpiece outside the lips and to pull the chin down. After he changed my embouchure, all I could play was middle C. After 2 weeks, I could play a scale of one octave, slowly. I went back to school, and Ádám Friedrich asked, "What happened?!? Before you left, you could play concertos, everything - and now you play one octave. What is it? Who did this?" I told him Edwin Golnik changed my embouchure. "Who is this *&^% Edwin Golnik? Take your mouthpiece back to the old position!" I played half a year the old way in my horn lessons, and I practiced at home what Golnik taught me.
KMT: (laughing) So you were doing both at the same time!
MN: Yes, I was doing both. After half a year, I was at the same level with both embouchures, and Ádám Friedrich let me switch. It's a funny story. After this, I applied for the Music Academy. I didn't pass the admission test - back then, it was a 5-year master's program, and the bachelor's school was in another part of town - it was the institute to train music teachers, not performers. Imre Magyarí was the professor. For 3 years I studied with him, and it helped me more than if I had gone straight to the academy. He taught me a lot, especially about high horn playing. After that, I got into the academy, and in the meantime, the horn professor there had died. Ádám Friedrich got the job. So I went back to him and studied again, but at a higher level. I studied with him for 6 years altogether and was one of the longest students with him.
KMT: Would you say there is such a thing as a "Hungarian School" of horn playing? How did the modern Hungarian tradition start?
MN: Before WWII, most of the brass players came from Germany. They spoke to each other in German, even in the Budapest Opera. Also, they were the professors after the war. It's like John Lennon said: before Elvis, there was nothing! I think that before (Ferenc) Tarjáni, there was nothing. Tarjáni won the Geneva competition in 1962, Munich in 1964 - he was the first real soloist in Hungary. Ádám Friedrich was the next great player to come. From the newer generation, Imre Magyarí won many competitions, in Markneukirchen, and in Poland. We couldn't listen to any good horn players from the West. It was the time of the Iron Curtain, and western albums weren't allowed. We could hear Buyanovsky and Peter Damm, no one else. We knew about Dennis Brain, but we didn't have any recordings of his until the 1980's. In Hungary, we mixed influences from Czech, Russian, and German playing. Therefore we used to play with a lot of vibrato, imitating them. But there is no real Hungarian school. In Hungary, our weakness - and our strength - is that we are open to every school and style. I know many young players who love American playing. They talk about which is best - New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago. Hungarians play somewhere in the middle of all these national styles, but the most important factor for us is that we had great music teachers, not just for horn, but everything. Music always came first: play with a beautiful sound. Don't play horn, play music.
KMT: I think it's important for people to hear that.
MN: Yes, and this is the problem with horn players. They want to be good horn players. When I teach in master classes, I always say, "Forget the horn. It's just this brass thing in your hands. Put your personality through this brass thing - don't just want to be like another player, give your own personality to the instrument."
KMT: That's great. Thank you! Which do you prefer, playing concertos or playing in the orchestra?
MN: I prefer playing solo. The system in the music academy - the teachers taught students to be soloists, and we never studied orchestral excerpts. It was different than in the States or Germany. We didn't do well in auditions back then because we couldn't play excerpts like the others. When I was young, I went to many competitions and won some prizes - I'm a competitor's style horn player. I love challenges, and being a soloist is more challenging than playing in the orchestra. If you're not playing Mahler or Strauss, orchestra horn parts are mostly very boring. Therefore I prefer to play solos, but I'm not a real soloist. Technically, it's fine, but musically, I'm not at the right level. The soloist means, to me, not just horn, but the best violin players and pianists, the best cellists like Rostropovich. I cannot reach this level of musicality; also technically, it's difficult. I don't listen to many horn CD's because the music is not enough. They may play well technically, they may play musically, but it's often not at the same level as the best soloists on these other instruments. This is my problem as well. I cannot do enough.
KMT: Can you tell us how the Budapest Festival Horn Quartet got started?
MN: I have to go back before that. Ivan Fischer wanted to found a high-level Hungarian orchestra and knew there were a lot of great players, but in different ensembles. In 1983, he started the Budapest Festival Orchestra - originally just a few 2-week periods per year. I started playing with the BFO in 1985 - before that I was in a 2nd class orchestra, the Post Orchestra, sponsored by the post office! (laughs) Ivan Fischer was always on the lookout for young talent, and he heard of my success at competitions. I played every project through 1992. Then the Budapest city government gave him the money to found a full-time orchestra. He hired me as principal and asked me to put together a horn section. I selected 3 of the best young players in Hungary. One of the players had his exam in the Music Academy, so the four of us played the Schumann Konzertstück for that. This was our first performance. In 2000, the other 3 moved to the new Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, and I got the job as solo horn with the Luxembourg Philharmonic (OPL.) But we still play concerts together, not too many, unfortunately.
KMT: That's the thing with balancing an orchestra job with chamber music - it goes according to your availability. That was a problem with the AHQ in the end, that we couldn't all be free at the same time.
MN: Sure, sure, same thing. Actually, the first and main influence for the Budapest Festival Horn Quartet was the American Horn Quartet. We heard them in Barcs in 1989 when they won 1st prize in the Barcs brass competition. We heard them and were strongly influenced - that's why we sit in the same formation. This is the best position to hear each other. We wanted to play like the AHQ. For a while, we selected the same repertoire and played like them. Afterwards, we found our own sound and turned a bit towards Hungarian music. But we had a very strong influence from the AHQ. We listened to their CD's almost every day - copied of course! (laughing)
KMT: What are some useful etudes and exercises for aspiring young horn players? What should people be working on that they're not getting now?
MN: For me, the most important thing is sound quality. This can be trained through melodic exercises. For example, we have a small book, "Cantilena," by Panseron. This has 4-8-bar phrasing, not too high, not too low, and should be played legato, very musically. There's also Concone for singers, transcribed for trumpet or horn. It's very good to play slow, legato phrasing, a little crescendo and decrescendo. If you do this every day, you'll have a warmer, more singing sound. The horn is the best instrument for imitating singers. This is the most important thing.
KMT: What, besides music, interests you?
MN: Computers. Computer software and hardware. I build computers from the motherboard, processors - not for money, but for friends. I install Windows, I clean machines for friends - my brain thinks very differently then. Sometimes I'm sitting in a concert, and while playing I'm thinking about the next computer project! Where is the best connection for this part? (laughter) This helps me a lot. I also like sports, especially football (soccer,) but computers are my other passion.
KMT: Thank you so much, Miki! What a treat this is for me and our readers.
MN: My pleasure.
Just in case you haven't heard this yet, here is Miklós Nagy's action-packed "Mozart" cadenza: http://youtu.be/DL0hdLlMqCU