Heidi Kim Interviews Zsolt Bognár, October 2012

In October 2012, Heidi Kim of “Caffeinated Convos” blog interviewed Zsolt Bognár in Cleveland, mirrored here. Cup 21: Growing into the Music

Performance at Berlin Konzerthaus, August 2012

Performance at Berlin Konzerthaus, August 2012

Cup 21 is Mr. Zsolt Bognár.

Hometown: Urbana, Illinois but has lived in Cleveland for the past 12 years.

Location: Panera Bread on Euclid Avenue

Drink: Panera Cappuccino (and their Power Breakfast Sandwich to boot, his favorite B-fast item there).

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How did you get into music?

His earliest memory of classical music was his father playing Beethoven symphonies on old LPs. At the age of 8, Cup 21 accompanied his older brother every week to his flute lessons at the University of Illinois School of Music. Waiting in Smith Hall, young Zsolt was fascinated by the organ majors practicing in there, and decided that he was going to learn how to play this grand instrument as well.

But to his dismay, the piano teachers said that he had to begin on the piano for basic keyboard skills. Though tricked into playing the piano, he grew to love the instrument.

“It has such a range, a variety of colors, and it’s the instrument that you can be a stand-alone act as a performance, but you can also have great repertoire playing chamber music, concertos, and four-hands repertoire. I love to make chamber music – that’s my favorite way of making music – with friends.”

When did you know that you wanted to do music as a career? 

“I was 12 when I knew it would be my life. I remember a recital in Chicago where Alfred Brendel was playing five Beethoven Sonatas. He ended with the Sonata in D, Op. 10, No. 3. The 4th movement ends with a very light flourish, and he swept his hands off the keyboard and all the ladies in the audience started giggling.”

So he began to think, “If classical music can make people laugh with delight, then imagine the possibilities and the range of expression that you can express of not just the music, but the idea and the experience of living.”

“This was musical poetry, and I was so amazed by his showmanship, in the best sense that he was playing to share music for an audience, not just for himself, which was rather the world of Sviatoslav Richter. Often people attending these recitals of a Richter or a Michelangeli would feel like they were intruding on a private meditation, but I think the best artists can have a little bit of both. For example, Krystian Zimerman and my teacher, Sergei Babayan, embody both.”

Recording Schubert and Liszt in Berlin with Philipp Nedel

Recording Schubert and Liszt in Berlin with Philipp Nedel

What does music mean to you? Why do you play music?

“I love the music, first of all. But music has the ability to connect people. I think people often don’t realize what they are missing in its ability for music to transport them, or to provoke them into ideas, or to cross comfort zones. Music, for me, is about challenging you as a person so that you can grow and become the best version of yourself.” One of the most rewarding comments a musician can ever receive from an audience member is something like, ‘You awakened in me a curiosity about my own life around me, and it makes me want to do more with my life.’ At that point, you realize “communication has gone beyond the realm of music, and stepped into the realm of life.”

“The artists I admire the most are those who impart vitality and inspiration that you can take in any way that you want and do with it what you will, but hopefully to make your life better.”

Who or what has had the most influence on you as a musician and/or person?

1st part of life: Sviatoslav Richter

“I just couldn’t get enough of his sense that a life in music was a complete adventure, always traveling, always exploring -personally and the world- and always reaching ever further. Artistically, he had the kind of integrity that never sought any compromises. He gave me the gift of seeing that music—which is a very solitary way of life (for pianists especially)—is an incredible personal growth.”

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Second part: His teacher, Sergei Babayan

“He constantly pushes me even to this day, and questioned everything about my life. Not just music, but integrity, how to behave towards people and towards myself, how to have respect for life, and the calling of being a musician—and also to have a sense of humor about it.

By personality, I tend to take everything too seriously. One cannot feel that overwhelming responsibility on stage without having one’s own judgment becoming detrimental to the performance.

But over the years, seeing my teacher’s artistic and human growth, was a great example to me. His performances continue to grow to this day; there is a sense of spatial depth in his sound that is almost unprecedented.”

Why Cleveland is Great for Music

 “Cleveland is a great city for musicians. First of all, there was a long tradition of musicians who would come here, anyone from Leinsdorf to Boulez to Szell, all of whom worked here for extended periods. Earlier, the city was blessed with visits from Melchior, Rachmaninov, Horowitz, Richter, Rubinstein, and Hoffman. Rachmaninov was a guest at the opening night of Severance Hall, and he played his own Third Concerto. Right here! There’s a unique combination of musical background here, interest, and tradition, but not so much that people are jaded or arrogant. People still go to concerts here and are super excited about it. That’s what I love about Cleveland audiences.

You go to almost anywhere else in the world and people have heard so many great concerts but furthermore feel they know better than the efforts before their ears and eyes in the moment. That is when music starts to die—when it is measured against pre-conceived expectations rather than experienced as discovery.

A curious audience is the one a performer wishes for and that is the type of audience you find in Cleveland. We also have the Cleveland Orchestra, free concerts at CIM, and ChamberFest Cleveland (which debuted this summer under Executive and Artistic Director, violinist Diana Cohen (http://chamberfestcleveland.com/). This is particularly amazing because Diana recognizes all these things and has created something—she embodies the type of passionate advocate for music who is able to mobilize her resources to get community involvement. She has such a gift for people, and her efforts take enormous courage, guts, and energy.”

Photo for “Caffeinated Convos” by Heidi Kim

Photo for “Caffeinated Convos” by Heidi Kim

When Not Practicing

He has a video documentary series called “Zsolt Bognár and Friends”, where he interacts with various people in his musical life, including current CIM President Joel Smirnoff, cellist and classmate Joshua Roman, recording producer Joseph Patrych, to name a few. The next one, to be released in the upcoming days, will feature Paul Schenly.

He is becoming more involved in writing printed interviews. This November his article featuring Sergei Babayan will be published in International Piano Magazine. Be sure to keep your eyes out for it!

Zsolt also enjoys hiking, being in nature, traveling, being surrounded by friends, music, and family, reading, and history (particularly Russian and American).

* * *

If you hadn’t grown up to be a musician, what would you have been instead?

A pilot or psychologist.

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What do we need to do to gain more audience members at concerts?

“Children are our future audiences, and we must introduce classical music to them when they are young and more likely to believe that something is fun and exciting when we tell them so. Music halls everywhere must have more tickets available to kids and college students, either for free or cheap. There are always a number of empty seats in the back of the hall that are just begging to be filled. The younger generation is our future and we need to mold them into patrons of the fine arts. Many years ago, I tried to sneak into Severance Hall once with a friend—I found myself in the door confronted by the house manager, Judith Diehl. She knew we were sneaking in and asked us about it. We told her she caught us, and since we were honest, she brought us to the best seats in the house and said, ‘Remember, we can’t really be mad at you for wanting to be here. You’re our future patrons.’ To this day, I give a yearly donation to the Orchestra, because of what she said.”

Tchaikovsky First Concerto with the National Repertory Orchestra in 2009

Tchaikovsky First Concerto with the National Repertory Orchestra in 2009

Here are some quotes that I couldn’t help but make into a category of their own. They were so brilliantly stated that I couldn’t bear to delete them.

“I think musicians have to be assessed in person to hear their sound, because these things do not come across in recordings. Today, in the world of classical music, we have to convince people of the worth of hearing classical music in person. Today the issue is yes, everyone is passionate about classical music, but why would you pay money for it when you can get all the greatest performances in history on YouTube for free? The difference is that when you go to a concert, you experience the moment as a collective whole. It is the audience being there to witness an unrepeatable event. That is the here and now, and I think that is where the real experience happens.”

* * *

“Why did I want to become a doctor? I wanted to feel like I was helping people in a very direct, palpable way. But then I realized that musicians have to believe that anyway … they have to feel that they are touching people’s lives. Even if I am not doing some sort of physical surgery or healing, I can perhaps try to heal audiences in other ways. These are very romanticized and idealistic visions of what an artist can do, but if we do not believe that there is the possibility of achieving these on stage with music, or a painter through a great painting, then for me it would not be worth doing.”

* * *

“Classical music will have to adapt to a world that doesn’t want to pay for its art. But I think it can survive. It will take some very passionate people. Management has to realize that this is for the love of music. Managers have to realize that there are no huge earnings in classical music with the exception of a select few stars like Lang Lang.”

* * *

“Miss all the notes that you want, just don’t miss the music.”-Sergei Babayan

* * *

Paraphrasing what Rafael Kubelík, former guest conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic, said to the orchestra: ’Why do you think perfection means accuracy? Can you show me another type of perfection?’

“Searching for that magic, which goes beyond merely doing things correctly, when our goals are set on those kinds of sights, that’s when real artistic growth happens.”

* * *

“Art is always about context … we need to understand the context from which this art arose. And that this art came from real people. They were not all that different from us, aside from the physical circumstances being a little bit different.”

Life Lesson

1) You’re always growing.

“For anyone who has gone through difficulty, hardship, or confusing times, which is all of us, those are the times when real growth happens. Those are the times when we learn who we are. The richest experiences that I have had in my life were those when I chose to step out of my routines to do something new and to connect with people I wouldn’t have otherwise connected with, to learn something new. In music, there will be times when a musician feels a period of stagnation or regression. That just means that there is a disconnect between advancing level of perception and goals, and where you actually are, so that needs to catch up. Those periods are the real periods of growth, musically, and I think the same applies to life.”

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Thank you so much, Zsolt, for your time, talent, thoughts, and energy.

Caffeinated Convos

InterviewZsolt Bognar