On Friday night, thanks to Celebrity Series of Boston, Sanders Theatre resounded with the sounds of Hungarian Gypsy music masters, the Roby Lakatos Ensemble. The musical selections ranged from traditional to popular to classical to musical and film soundtrack. The musicians reveled in the music and the technical mastery of rapid passages or burnished lyricism, while the audience thrilled to the glorious sounds and excitement of the music.
Before the concert began, a gentleman behind me could be overheard saying to his companion, “Prepare yourself for some schmaltz.” Exiting the hall after the concert, I again heard someone use the term “schmaltz.” Pity, really: Roby Lakatos Ensemble possess a technical prowess and musical sensitivity any musician would envy, and they gave a lively performance of repertoire that these schmaltz-sayers enjoyed.
Typically, numbers alternated between fast and slow and most highlighted Roby Lakatos on violin, although the ensemble members each had their moment to shine during improvisations in each set.
Selections recalled the work of Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli, and the Quintette du Hot Club de France. The evening opened with József Suha Balogh, Fire Dance/Gypsy Bolero/Cickom Paraphrase, and this medley introduced the ensemble. In Michel Legrand’s Papa can you hear me? Kalman Cséki, piano, collaborated with Roby Lakatos, violin, to bring out the pathos and anguish Barbra Streisand packed into this song in Yentl. Following this moment of legato lyricism, the mood shifted to one of Roby Lakatos’s own compositions, A Night in Marrakech, a jazzier number. Next, Ástor Piazzola, Oblivion, danced through our ears. The traditional Les Deux guitares brought into focus László Bóni, violin, as the two violins and guitar, masterfully played by László Balogh, traded off musical lines. In both of these pieces, László “Csorosz” Lajos Lisztes on double bass provided musical grounding, jazz-inflected pizzicati, or ambience matching the mood of the piece. Vladimir Cosma’s Le Grand blond avec une chaussure noire rounded out the first half of the program, opening with Lakatos on violin and Jenö István Lisztes, cimbalom, before the entrance of the whole ensemble, with Kalman Cséki, piano.
Following intermission, the ensemble returned to the stage in Lakatos’s own SK. Capricio, a piece combining widely recognized elements of Hungarian and gypsy music into an upbeat and thrilling whole. Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee gave way to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s Honeysuckle Rose, which here brought out the whole ensemble in fine form. The traditional Russian tune, I’ve Met You–Mama gave all the players a chance to shine, and Ennio Morricone’s Once Upon a Time in America focused on Lakatos’s own violin playing. Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás finished off the announced program in rousing style. The thunderous applause brought the musicians back to the stage for encores of Ochi Chorne and The Lark.
Roby Lakatos is obviously the star attraction in this ensemble. His violin playing is technically marvelous, with mastery of the entire length of the bow, seamless bow changes, and a powerful tone throughout the instrument’s register. This sound dominated throughout the evening. Jenö István Lisztes on cimbalom, however, stole the show with his stupendous performance of the solo line from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee. With piano, guitar, and double bass for harmonic support, he gave an exhilarating performance. For those who think The Flight of the Bumblebee trite and over-performed, try sitting impassively by as Lisztes beats it out in quick tempo on a cimbalom or concert-hammered dulcimer. I once saw this piece performed on a marimba; that called for a combination musician and acrobat/dancer to master the larger size of the instrument. Lisztes gave the infinitely more virtuosic performance; the cimbalom is a smaller instrument and this piece requires inordinately precise fine-motor skills to execute, let alone to perform it, as Lisztes did, musically. This was a magical moment to experience.
Western classical music has long flirted with the foreign and the exotic. Mozart turned to Turkish influence for his Rondo alla Turca and Die Entführung aus dem Serail. The later 19th century turned to Bohemian musical influences and gypsy dances; Brahms, Hungarian Dances and Dvorák, Gypsy Songs, are only the most obvious examples. Of course, the history of musical exoticism is much more complex, and these are but small points on a much larger map. Dipping into the exotic soundscapes of other cultures recurs in music history, as part of a near-constant quest for new sounds and new instruments. This slumming, in a different cultural context, is often coupled with a dismissal of the other culture as frivolous, somehow not sufficiently serious. Personally, I think of the 19th-century musical turn towards Eastern Europe as akin to Romanticism in poetry: a struggle against industrialization, a plea for a return to non-mechanized ways of construing the world, a re-introduction of play, serious fun, and an idealized innocence into the otherwise professional musical landscape. More than “schmaltz,” this evening offered the reflective listener the excitement and the visceral pleasure of music that was moving. I’m glad Celebrity Series of Boston brought Roby Lakatos Ensemble to us and hope many in the audience were able to rise to this glorious occasion and enjoy the evening’s music on its own terms.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.