In the past two days, I have encountered many people who have been very helpful and very gracious to me and my wife—particularly in giving directions to us. Two days ago, when I was unsuccessfully trying to find the Liszt Music Academy, four people took the time to give me directions. One store owner came out of his shop, pleasantly told me to go right at the intersection that I had just passed by, and wished me well. It wasn’t his fault that I twice overran the Franz Liszt Square after I tripped and tumbled over some trolley tracks.
When I realized that I was lost, I approached a young lady walking her dog. She stopped her routine, explained with lots of gestures and details where she thought the Academy was located. I figured that now I at least would get close to my destination. But I still needed more confirmation, so I attempted to get more specific directions from a salesclerk who was sweeping the street. She wasn’t too sure where the long-sought after Academy was, but she enlisted herself in my cause. She stopped a few people walking by and asked them (in Hungarian) if they knew where the building was. What a sweet thing to do! No one responded until one man who spoke fluent English not only pointed to my destination but also walked me to the appointed intersection. Another extremely gracious gesture!
Thanks to the kindness of strangers, I finally got squared away as I located the Academy along Franz Liszt Square.
Initial Impressions of the Buildings of Budapest
Budapest (or at least Pest so far) is not as uniformly elegant as Vienna, Salzburg, or Prague. Yesterday while my wife and I were exploring an area near the National Museum, I noticed that right next to a couple of handsome Art Nouveau apartment buildings was an identically structured unit with an eroded façade and a smattering of cracked windows and even a few missing windows. Many gloriously imposing monuments to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire are still well-preserved; others are run down and crumbling; they need major re-facing and a face lift. A huge church near us requires so much repair that it has been completely covered with scaffolding and protective plastic sheeting. A looming cathedral in the same vicinity has an impeccably well-scrubbed exterior.
This juxtaposition of the bleak and the beautiful is unnerving, but I am getting acclimated to it. And I am hopeful that the deteriorating buildings in Pest will be restored to their original grandeur. For example, the Liszt Academy of Music—where we are going for a few concerts— reopened last year after extensive renovation. It now looks like a pristine Greek temple.
A Second Look at Budapest
The Budapest skyline is quite different from the ones in Vienna, Salzburg, and Prague. Although Budapest has its contingent of baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, they are scattered throughout the city (except for Buda Hill), sometimes right next to modern drab commercial buildings, not centered in a homogeneous Old City environment. Nor are there the huge cathedrals that are so prevalent in Vienna, Salzburg, and Prague (except for St. Matthias and St. Stephens). Prague had so many gorgeous churches that even in our three-week stay there, we had no time to visit them all. We shouldn’t have that problem in Budapest: the myriad concert venues will certainly take up the slack.
At first I was upset that there are many decrepit buildings within Budapest proper. But after my wife and I continued exploring the city, we were happy to find out that all of the major attractions—government complexes, concert halls, churches, synagogues, museums, statues, and spas—are just as majestic and well-maintained as the ones in the other cities we have visited on our European jaunt.
Two Clarinetists for All Seasonings
I had figured that the concert on Thursday night at the Liszt Academy that my wife and attended would be pretty tame: Mozart’s Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3, and Dvorak’s New World Symphony are warhorses of the repertoire that it would be hard to enliven. Not only that. I didn’t have any idea how good the orchestra was because its name was missing from the Academy concert brochures. All that I knew was that the conductor was a newcomer, Dara Andrea. But the concert was free, so why not give it a try; at least, I had heard that the acoustics were good at the Academy.
Well, it turned out that good is a misnomer. Even words like fabulous, incredible, marvelous, and uniquely outstanding, while true, can’t adequately capture what it’s like to have been there on Thursday night. We were transfixed: the sound was utterly alive, pure, and incandescent from the rollicking cadences of the violins in the Mozart overture to the wistful piano riffs in the slow movement of the Beethoven concerto to the bellowing flourishes of the trombones in the last movement of the Dvorak symphony. I don’t know how to account for this acoustical cornucopia. It could stem (in whatever proportion) from the massive renovations of the concert hall, from the strategically placed microphones, and from the gifted musicians themselves. The anonymous orchestra retrofitted these old warhorses with renewed life: they nuzzled, they roared, they soared, they pranced.
Watching the rhythmic motions of one of the clarinetists in particular was also a delight. While most of the musicians had appropriately professional demeanors, this young man had uninhibited enthusiasm that I didn’t notice until the last piece, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. When he wasn’t playing the clarinet, he swayed with the beat, bobbing his head up and down and tapping his knee with his left hand either slightly or more vigorously, depending on the pace of the passage that so enraptured him. Even when he was playing, he showed lots of emotion. At times, in a dramatic gesture, he would momentarily flick his left hand off and on the keys. Nor did he remain still while both hands were moving over the keys. He repeatedly bowed as he blew into the clarinet with religious devotion (resembling an orthodox Jew davening) and then, with his eyes closed, nudged it from side to side as much as he could without bumping into another musician.
There were some other memorable features of the concert. The pianist soloist in the Beethoven concerto was blind, and to prepare himself each time he got ready to play with the orchestra, he’d scramble his fingers over the keyboard to find the proper notes. While most of the musicians were relatively young, there was one gaunt violinist who appeared to be in his eighties, yet he played with as much precision as the other musicians surrounding him. Right behind him was an extremely overweight middle-aged violinist who also had no trouble blending in with her section of the orchestra.
The next night, my wife and I attended a much different kind of concert, one given by a virtuoso four-member Klesmer band. When the ensemble played traditional Yiddish melodies, I was poignantly reminded of my Jewish heritage. The clarinetist was especially superb. He had tremendous range. With remarkable dexterity, he could play soft reverent slivers of notes and a moment later let out piercing, wailing tones. He cavorted about the stage as he performed his riffs. He was charismatic, and the audience loved his showmanship as much as I did.
But when he was offstage, the band did some things that I didn’t find so attractive. At one point, they gratuitously added dissonant passages to a traditional Klesmer tune. I was unmoved. Later on, the accordionist in an unexpected and unnecessary diversion concocted a pseudo-Klemerized rendition of Rossini’s famous Figaro aria from The Barber of Seville. He was brilliant, but I was unnerved. Nor was I particularly pleased with one of the band’s antics: as the bass player was doing a monotonous dead-pan solo, the guitarist and violinist tried to rattle him by simultaneously sawing away on his fiddle. But when the clarinetist returned, all was well again.
My wife and I will be going to three more concerts at the Liszt Academy in the next two weeks, highlighted by cello finalists in an international competition, a Russian pianist, and a baroque ensemble playing on original instruments. In between, we will attend two operas and a ballet at different venues. Let the classical music bonanza at Budapest continue!
Two Synagogues: Reborn from the Ashes
Yesterday, my wife and I visited two synagogues that graphically show the reconstitution of Jewish life in Budapest since the Holocaust. Because of a lack of funding and jurisdictional disputes, the one on W street has been left pretty much intact after the Nazis gutted it. I hope that the synagogue remains the way it is, a symbol of the initial destructive stages of the Holocaust. There are literally concrete remnants of the original synagogue strewn against the walls; some of these slabs have carved Hebrew lettering. Along the bottom half of the walls are numerous orange-red streaks. I don’t know how they got there, but I’d like to think that they represent the caked blood of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Higher up around the walls are inscriptions reminding those who enter that the Ten Commandments aren’t individual proclamations: they should be written as one unbreakable chain in which faith and ethics are inseparable: they depend upon each other, strengthen each other, and forge the bonds between every Jew who has ever lived or will ever live. Although I was at first shocked to see the ruined interior of this synagogue, when I left, I was heartened.
My hope for the rejuvenation of Judaism in Eastern Europe got a huge boost during our visit to the K synagogue. Throughout this completely revamped synagogue, there are indelible reminders that Judaism has been renewed in Budapest. The vibrant blue walls are decorated with painted menorahs, Stars of David, and depictions of the Tree of Life. It feels as if each drawing was inspired by a childlike delight in life that projects and ensures the future of the Jewish people.
These two synagogues complement each other. From the ashes of the Holocaust comes life reborn. But Jews in Hungary can’t afford to be complacent; they have to be vigilant. Right now, as has been the case for centuries, there are renewed threats to Jewish survival. Extremist right-wing groups are increasingly gaining more seats in the government, threatening to undermine the revival and perhaps even the survival of Judaism throughout Hungary. For years, I have heard and recited the mantra Never Again in reference to the Holocaust. I pray that in my lifetime and in the life of my descendants, the diabolically anti-Semitic mantra Always Again will not once more prevail.
My wife and I have visited two Catholic churches in Budapest: St. Anna’s and St. Stephen’s. The exterior of St. Anna is sheathed for repairs and part of the upper interior is being renovated, but we were able to see the main features of the sanctuary. Two things immediately struck us: the Pieta and the Stations of the Cross. In all of the Catholic churches that we have visited in Austria and the Czech Republic, these religious icons have been prominently displayed, as it is in St. Anna’s.
The sculptor who was commissioned to depict the crucified Christ lying in the Madonna’s lap has seamlessly enfolded the dramatic bold colors in Mary’s robe with the muted anguish so evident in her expression. Jesus has been humanized. He at last seems to be at peace, reconciled to whatever fate awaits him. This Pieta is located on the right of the entrance way. You can’t miss it, and it would be hard to resist its esthetic power. The highly individualized Stations of the Cross are clearly seen on both sides of the aisle. They are exquisitely crafted in bas relief. There are no signs of perfunctory homage here. These portrayals are reverence personified.
The other Catholic church we have visited, monumental St. Stephen Basilica, is as well-groomed inside and outside as an imperial palace, but it has none of the excessive Baroque trappings of so many other European cathedrals. Everything is refined, tasteful, in proportion. Yet as I explored the sanctuary, I couldn’t locate the obligatory Pieta and the Stations of the Cross. Of course, I had a lot of territory to cover; the cathedral is huge.
After more searching, I was still not successful until I saw that a mass of tourists were blocking a passage to a small chapel that I hadn’t ever noticed was there. I painstakingly navigated into the room. Ah ha! I finally saw paintings of the Stations of the Cross. Unlike the ones at St. Anna’s, however, these depictions, artlessly framed in discolored glass, were mediocre and lifeless. But at least I had found them.
Satisfied with one victory, I hoped to also locate the Pieta, perhaps in another recess that I might have overlooked. No luck. I just couldn’t understand how such a major Catholic cathedral could ignore the Pieta.
Nonplussed, I found out that my wife wanted to see the Treasury upstairs. I wasn’t in the mood, but I agreed. I’m glad that I did. As we entered, I saw a large old painting of the Pieta. It had none of the luster or realism of the one at St. Anna’s. It was a little frayed, the figures were elongated in the El Greco-Mannerist style that I have always felt off-putting, and both Jesus and Mary both appeared stillborn; they had little humanity. But aside from my criticism of the painting, at least it was there. And I was for now vindicated in my belief that every Catholic Church, no matter how obscure or celebrated, automatically includes the Pieta and the Stations of the Cross.
I may well be wrong, but as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof used to proclaim in defense of a Jewish rite or custom, it’s TRADITION!
The Subdued Grandeur of St. Matthias Cathedral
The gothic Church of St. Matthias at the Buda Castle Hill is the epitome of elegance. There are no baby angels (obnoxious or not), no baroque excrescences, no out-of-proportion statues, no histrionics at all. Instead of frescoes and lunettes and framed paintings, pastel mythological, historical, and evangelical art nouveau wall paintings cover a large portion of the nave. Every inch of the church pillars and buttresses has been delicately painted with earth-tone Moorish flowery arabesques sometimes in the shape of animals. This was not the first time my wife and I have encountered the Moorish decorative style. These designs are also lavishly displayed in the Hungarian Parliament, the Great Synagogue in Budapest, the Spanish Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral just south of Prague proper.
At the Budapest St. Matthias Cathedral, the tasteful art nouveau and Moorish décor are a counterpoint to the richly embossed stained-glass windows with representations of saints, Hungarian heroes, coats of arms, and arabesques. Because we came late in the afternoon on a cloudy day, the stained-glass windows gleamed but didn’t glare, an optimum time for photo pics. And the stained glass has an extra dimension, as my wife pointed out to me at the end of our visit. On the right side of the altar piece curved around the evocative statue of the Virgin Mary are openings that allow part of a stained-glass window to glow through them, one of many subtly resplendent touches in this cathedral.
Nothing is out of place at St. Matthias; everything is where it ought to be. Oops! I forgot. There is one item that I strongly feel detracts from the lambent ambience of the church. A moderately large round nondescript light fixture poorly serves as the only chandelier in the cathedral. It looks like it belongs in a warehouse more than in a house of worship as tastefully outfitted as the St. Matthias Cathedral.