‘A singer, dancer, policeman, psychiatrist and clown’

Gábor Takács-Nagy knows what it takes to be a good conductor, and he’s more than happy to share it


If Gábor Takács-Nagy is anything, he’s a student. The founding leader of the Takács Quartet and later the violinist of the Takács Piano Trio, he has also been an orchestral leader. For more than two decades, he has taught chamber music at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève.

Nowadays, he’s in the public eye for his conducting and in Ireland for his association with the Irish Chamber Orchestra.

Despite his experience, he seems to approach conducting as a fascinating subject he is studying. He finds ways to absorb lessons from everything he does and pursues knowledge from anywhere and everywhere.

Total immersion is the Takács-Nagy style and it may have been his intensity and focus that cost him his position as leader of the Takács Quartet. He led the group from its foundation in 1975 until 1992, and made more than 70 appearances in Ireland for the late John Ruddock’s Limerick Music Association. But he developed muscular problems that limited him to 90 per cent of his capacity in rehearsal and 20 to 35 per cent in concert.

In one appearance at the National Concert Hall, his difficulties became so severe he had to stop playing in the middle of a piece and leave the stage to recover. His problem may have come from being “a little bit too intense”, he says. “I did not have family. I did not get married until 35. I lived only for the quartet. I wasn’t crazy, but when I got up in the morning I was already planning the rehearsals and wanting to practise.”

He doesn’t miss the travelling but he misses the repertoire. “And I miss my colleagues. We were brothers, almost.”

The four had studied with the same teachers, who encouraged them to seek improvisatory freedoms in performance, even at the expense of technical perfection. “It was total trust in the group,” he says. “When we were in top form, there were 10 or 15 seconds of each concert, sometimes three or four times, where we had this fantastic feeling that time and space is disappearing, we were just flowing with the music. I miss these moments. But sometimes now with very, very good orchestras, I can have them too.”

It was Tibor Varga, “a brilliant Hungarian violinist who taught in Switzerland” and at whose academy Takács-Nagy worked, who first asked him to conduct.

“He told me conducting is not easy, but not as complicated as it looks. The secret is the upbeat. If you have a clear upbeat which has already the tempo, dynamics and character, who cares when you arrive down. It will be together. The anticipation is important, not the arrival.”

He’s also learned from other conductors who knew him from his quartet days. “One is Simon Rattle. I went to his dressing room after a concert and asked for his advice. He told me, first of all, you have to know it’s psychologically tiring to play in an orchestra and there are a lot of frustrated people there. Every five minutes you have to wake them up in the rehearsal. Either make a joke or dance or use an unexpected image. A caffeine injection.

“Don’t tell them once again that they’re not together. If you do that you’re putting them back into a civil servant state. Ask them to listen, say, to the viola if it’s the most important line. Hide the message in artistic advice. Don’t talk too much. Never forget that the most difficult thing is how to get authority and sensitivity in balance.

“If a conductor is only authoritative, it’s a stiff atmosphere. If a conductor is only sensitive, nobody takes him seriously. Be the boss, but a friendly one who knows what he wants but doesn’t push people down. You have to be five different people in front of an orchestra, Rattle told me. You have to be a singer, a dancer, a policeman, a psychiatrist and a clown.”

Bernard Haitink, another source of advice, said that if an orchestra feels a conductor trusts them, they will give more. “He told me to go out and almost not conduct. You are just there and they realise that you’re trusting them. But it’s also putting them in a dangerous situation, because nobody’s beating time. They really have to listen.” Haitink also told him: “If a person makes a mistake, do not look at them. They are human. Of course they can make a mistake. But in half a minute look at them with a smile.”

Stories and nuggets of advice tumble out as if he never tires of them. He mentions Wilhelm Furtwängler’s writings, the fact that playing together should be a result, not a goal; also, in the first couple of minutes of a concert, he recommends doing something unexpected and potentially dangerous, to make the players more alert.

What he calls “this fascinating life of a conductor” is clearly every bit as much an obsession as leading a string quartet once was. Standing in front of a very good orchestra, leading a symphony by Beethoven or Brahms physically and emotionally, he says, has helped him to understand why old conductors just can’t give it up. “It’s like a drug,” he says.

It’s just over five years since he first conducted the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and from this month he is their principal conductor and principal artistic partner.

What he remembers from their first concert together is that, “the atmosphere is very positive. They’re not only very good musicians but very nice people, too. They have 10 or 12 projects a year and they always have two or three weeks to work on them. It’s not like a boring marriage. They don’t get into civil-service ways.”

His ambitions are straightforward. “To get to as high a level as possible and do lots of touring. To keep their love of music and the special buzz, the effervescence that they have.”

Gábor Takács-Nagy conducts the Irish Chamber Orchestra at the RDS, Dublin, tonight and at the University Concert Hall, Limerick, tomorrow night.

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