Look at the lands that make up the European continent and note how a few nations inevitably feature more often than others in roll-calls of big names in the musical world. From a population of just over five million today, at least a dozen Finnish conductors are now front-rank personalities, and throughout the 20th century, Hungary, with a current population of around ten million, supplied classical music with seemingly endless stars from its talent sheds: conductors like Doráti, Fricsay, Kertesz, Ormandy, Reiner, Solti and Szell as well as instrumentalists such as Anda, Starker, Szigeti and Annie Fischer. More recently, the firmament in the land of the Magyars has not been shining quite so brightly, but András Keller is determined to do all he can to nurture emerging musical stars in his homeland.

When we met at the Guildhall School of Music, where Keller is Professor of Violin and was appointed earlier this year to the Béla Bartók International Chair, he was keen to stress the importance of thorough teaching and a familiarity with the entire repertory. In doing so he cast a rueful backward glance to the 1970s, the most recent “golden period”, in his view, when his own teachers were Ferenc Rados (“one of the great musical gurus of all time”), Dénes Kovács and above all György Kurtág, whom together with Sándor Végh he reveres as the guiding-spirits in his own musical development. Teaching is all about making a difference - adding value, in the modern parlance - and being able to point to the results.

Drawing on his own rich experience as a soloist and later concertmaster of two orchestras in Budapest as well as the Keller Quartet which he founded in 1987, his most recent project has been the strengthening of the artistic profile of Concerto Budapest Symphony Orchestra. Exactly one century after its formation in 1907 as the Post Office Orchestra (Leipzig’s similarly civic Gewandhausorchester is, after all, a creation of merchant tailors), initially with amateur musicians, Keller became its Chief Conductor and Artistic Director, and two years later renamed the now entirely professional ensemble Concerto Budapest. It has given young Hungarian musicians a unique opportunity to showcase their talents, though some ten per cent come from the international field, including the orchestra’s concertmaster, Miranda Liu, herself a graduate of Budapest’s Liszt Academy and appointed to her current position at the tender age of 19.

Passionate commitment to the cause of music is what Keller looks for in his musicians, and he sees his own role primarily as that of a teacher, requiring on average four four-hour rehearsals for each concert. “This is never enough,” he willingly admits, but underlines that a latter-day Celibidache or Kleiber would find it impossible to be granted the working conditions they once enjoyed. The repertoire is consciously and deliberately as wide as possible, since “musicians should be able to play anything and everything”. This flexibility is also reflected in the attention given to contemporary music. As Keller says, “I am a Kurtág student and so this is my mission.” There is naturally enough a special focus on younger Hungarian composers, and part of Keller’s artistic direction is to arrange wherever possible for follow-up performances of the works that he commissions. I asked him about the short shelf-life of so much contemporary music. “I help to give life to these pieces,” he rejoins. “Once it is performed, it is alive. It can always be performed again.” This commitment is evident in the annual Day of Listening, to be staged this year in Budapest at Müpa on 25 November, when Keller’s orchestra will be involved in 12 hours of playing contemporary works.

Our conversation turns in due course to the special sound he is attempting to fashion with Concerto Budapest. His ideals all come from the past – the Busch Quartet, the Végh Quartet and Quartetto Italiano – from an age when he was able to identify who was playing after just a few bars. Today, he readily concedes, that is much more difficult. However, cultivating the “speaking voices” of individual chamber musicians remains his particular ambition. He would like his orchestra to play in a way which enables audiences to recognise it immediately.

This determination to achieve a distinctive profile is part of a wider artistic vision. “There is no democracy in an orchestra,” he declares, “there is only a hierarchy. But this hierarchy changes all the time: one moment a principal might be leading but then a moment or so later they are serving somebody else. No player can exist on their own.” Full empathy and respect for the other individual voices is what, in his opinion, is lacking in Europe today, and he draws a wider circle to include the importance of getting all young people to play an instrument and work together in concert, since this is a unique vehicle for social learning. For this reason, and remembering the golden past, he will work hard at bringing back to Budapest some of the leading music teachers, since he accepts the moral responsibility of ensuring that musical traditions and standards are passed on successfully to the next generation.

Concerto Budapest is already acting as a kind of musical ambassador for Hungary, having toured repeatedly to Asia and Mexico, and plans are already underway for visits to the UK and the US, hopefully in order to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Bartók’s death in 2020. In addition, recordings have been contracted with German label TACET to take in many of the “nines” – Schubert, Bruckner, Dvořák and Shostakovich are already in the can – and Mahler’s ninth, which is part of the current season of concerts, will soon be joining the others. Additional sources of income are essential, since unlike the UK and the US, there is no sponsorship and no private donors. “We have lots of rich people, but they seem to prefer football” is Keller’s reasoning for the absence of such patronage. Luckily, the more recent national and international success of Concerto Budapest has enabled its government subsidy to be increased.

In music, as in life generally, things have a habit of coming full circle. Keller gave up his own quartet in order to take on the huge challenge of passing on what before him Végh had called “the universal message of music” to a younger generation of passionate and committed professionals. Yet despite the rewards he gets from Concerto Budapest he has found that he cannot really live without a quartet. “It is like a virus,” he says, a virus that he is unable to shake off. The moment that changed his life in his respect was hearing the Amadeus Quartet play Beethoven’s op.132, and to this day Beethoven and Bartók remain the two composers closest to his heart. This is why he has decided to re-establish the Hungarian String Quartet (the old Magyar Quartet founded by Végh in 1935 and disbanded in 1972), which will be giving its debut in January 2019. As I watched later in the afternoon while Keller gave a tutorial to a young Spanish violinist in the Guildhall, so proud, in his own words, to be one of the staff working there, I was struck by the way in which this modest man was imbued with an infectious desire to seek the highest possible levels of excellence in everything he does. Köszönöm szépen, maestro!


This interview was sponsored by Concerto Budapest