Teenage violinist from Hungary blows the roof off the California Theatre

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 18th of October 2010   Source: mercurynews.com

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By the time Lajos Sarkozi wound up his astonishing performance Saturday at the California Theatre in San Jose, his face wore the gleeful look of the cat who ate the mouse. With the audience roaring its approval, this 19-year-old Hungarian violinist seemed almost amused, as if his ravishing execution of technically daunting works had all been a bit of a game, something he does at the drop of a hat.


This cocksure showman - who plays with a soulful brilliance beyond his years - was the soloist and star of "Gypsy Airs," Symphony Silicon Valley's weekend program. It was a night of pure pleasure, one of the orchestra's best concerts since its founding in fall 2002. And Sarkozi, who comes from a family of Budapest-based Roma musicians, had plenty of help, especially from Hungarian guest conductor Gregory Vajda, drawing clear, vigorous and radiant performances from the orchestra.


The program, which repeated Sunday, included famously difficult, Gypsy-fired works by Ravel and Sarasate. And there's quite a story behind it.


Sarkozi, who took up the violin at age 5, grew up performing traditional Roma music with his family in Budapest restaurants. Coming late to classical music, he's in his first year of a five-year conservatory program in Budapest. He plays a decent student violin -- nothing fancy -- and won his bow in a Hungarian radio jazz competition.


Try Googling him; you will find next to nothing. No website. No MySpace page. Sarkozi seems to have emerged out of thin air.




About three years ago, Vajda's agent happened to see the violinist perform in a Budapest restaurant. One thing led to another, and Vajda performed this same "Gypsy Airs" program with Sarkozi two summers ago at the Music in the Mountains festival in Nevada City. A number of Symphony Silicon Valley's musicians were in the festival orchestra, and they began lobbying Andrew Bales, Symphony Silicon Valley's president, to bring Sarkozi and the program to San Jose.


"They told me, 'Listen, the audience went crazy, they loved it, and you've got to hear this kid,' '' Bales recalled.


Saturday night, Sarkozi played Ravel's "Tzigane" -- the title derives from "Cygany," Hungarian for "Gypsy" -- with terrific authenticity. That means a huge woody and earthy sound, plowing through Ravel's compendium of Gypsy fiddling tricks: swooping and sliding double-stops and octaves, glassy harmonics, trills, hesitations and accelerations, impossibly high positions on the lower strings. And all of this with a singing sensibility, heartened by a broad vibrato.


And, yes, the audience went crazy.


The orchestra was caught up in the infectiousness of the performance, with harpist Dan Levitan performing with elegance as the secondary soloist. When the piece was over, Vajda bounded off the stage. All night, he did this, practically running to and from the podium. For him, as for Sarkozi, the music on this program was like mother's milk. The conductor's face was glowing and his exuberance translated into precise and glowing performances.


The night had begun with "Symphonic Minutes" by Hungarian composer Erno Dohnanyi, a performance flush with pungent contributions from the wind section, especially English hornist Patricia Emerson Mitchell.


"Tzigane" came next, and then "Dances of Marosszek" by Zoltan Kodaly, another Hungarian, famous for studying the peasant and Gypsy music of Central and Eastern Europe. This performance was darkly colored, with shadowy songs -- quasi-Oriental, some of them, in their embellishments -- from the cellos, individual winds and principal horn Meredith Brown. At one point, the strings resonated like a single giant guitar.


After intermission, the audience was treated to "Hungarian Sketches" by Bela Bartok, yet another Hungarian, as well as Kodaly's research partner among the folk. Principal clarinet Michael Corner was the standout here, though the middle "Melody" movement grew big and gleaming on a foundation of low brass.


The program kept gaining momentum. In fact, Vajda was so eager to begin Brahms' "Hungarian Dances" that he ran back to the podium and launched the piece while five musicians -- required here for Brahms' expansive scoring -- were still finding their seats.


No matter. The first of the three dances, in particular, was combustive -- though not as fiery as Sarkozi, returning as soloist for "Zigeunerweisen" ("Gypsy Airs"), by the Spanish composer and violinist Pablo de Sarasate.


This was the tour de force. Sarkozi wrested a weeping rhapsody from that student violin of his, hamming it up, trilling and sliding as before, and zipping through Sarasate's bullet-train passages with light-and-springy rhythm and touch. It seemed so easy for him, almost as if he were toying with his listeners -- including the musicians of the orchestra, many of whom broke into applause along with the rest of the crowd.


As an encore, Sarkozi, alone, played Fritz Kreisler's "Recitative and Scherzo-Caprice," a work fit for Heifetz, which the 19 year-old again consumed like that mouse-eating cat.


Where is all this leading? As his studies continue, how will Sarkozi grapple with Mozart, Beethoven and other repertory that's not so closely related to his Roma heritage? One suspects he will do just fine. Soon to audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, he perhaps is about to leap into the public eye.


Some lucky San Jose folks got a sneak preview.


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