By Khai Ern Ooi

Spirituality in Music: A Chat with Gábor Takács-Nagy

Violinist-turned-conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy led the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in two exuberant performances of an all-Beethoven program last weekend. The former leader and founder of the eminent Takacs Quartet spoke tirelessly in rehearsals about playing from the heart. One phrase he particularly loved to use was “feel together, breathe together, anticipate together, and stop trying to play together!” Contributor, Khai Ern Ooi had the pleasure of hearing more about his passion for music in the short interview transcribed below.



Are there any similarities between string quartet playing and being a conductor?


There is the biggest difference, is that I had an instrument in my hand, and now I don’t have an instrument - the instrument is the human beings in front of me. The big difference is I cannot make any noise, but with my spiritual state, my physical state, my eyes, my breathing, I can inspire and help the musicians.


As to similarities, it’s just the music. I have it inside of me, and I’m trying to radiate it outside.


What was it like studying with Nathan Milstein?


It was unbelievable. It was life-changing every week. I got to hear this fantastic sonority and sound of a great, great master, and it is following me always in my life. He had a musical morality that went up with him, and I know how high is the goal.


Was there something he would repeatedly say in lessons?


Yes, it was always that when you play, your voice has to come from the inside. What we do, playing violin, is the secondary action. The inside voice, the singing, has to be the motor.


What about studying with Gyorgy Kurtag? How was that?


I studied chamber music - string quartets, for five years with him. He goes into the atoms. He goes unbelievably deep in music. He showed dimensions which nobody else showed me. What is behind the music. Harmonies, structures; how deep the music can be. He showed dimensions, fantastic dimensions.


Was there something he always used to say also?


He used to say that there are two nightmares for a composer. One: if the performer is not reading everything that is in the score; but the much bigger nightmare is if the player only plays what is in the score!


What do you like most about conducting?


First of all, I finished my violin career because I had problems with my hand, and I am happy that I can still be with masterpieces onstage. I can still be a performer. So, it’s not about conducting. I’m not thinking I’m a conductor. I’m a musician who still can be with masterpieces on the stage.

You learned the names of most of the players in the orchestra here; do you do that everywhere you go?


Yes. Because they are human beings, and it’s human contact, between me and them. I like to try, a bit, to break down this wall between conductor and orchestra. They feel that I am a threat. I am not a threat. I am a friend, who is helping them and encouraging them.


Do you miss playing in a quartet?


Yes... and no. No, but, the music is phenomenal. The string quartet literature is the top, it’s magic. But, no, no, I am happy with my life. But somewhere, yes. Somewhere, a little bit is missing.


What do you think is your biggest success?


Difficult to say. I had a lot of luck. I had fantastic teachers, and I met phenomenal musicians. And also in the string quartet, I had fantastic colleagues. So I am a lucky person. You cannot imagine. I had the best teachers in the world, who told me that music is a spiritual thing, it’s not materialistic.


How about your successes, or achievements?


Yes, well, in the string quartet, I, we, proved that what we did was at a world-class level. And my current success is that I can still be onstage as a musician. But I’m not thinking about these things. My success is that I am a healthy person, and that I am with the music which I love very much, and with what I’m earning with it, I can keep my family in a good life. This is my success.


How about your failures? What do you think is your biggest failure?


Not learning from my mistakes quickly enough; repeating mistakes. I’m not telling you exactly what, but this is my weak point. I am not always using my brain. Like this afternoon’s rehearsal. Many things I am happy with myself, but there are also frustrating things.


You are very spirited and lively, and you communicate a lot of energy to the orchestra. We really appreciate this.


You like it? Because I love what I am doing. But I know it has to be alive, the notes. I am afraid of being boring, and that would be awful.


How do you prepare for your concerts with your busy schedule?


I am working in the hotel room, looking at the scores, always analysing, because the conductor has to be a high-level artist, a spiritual artist, but also a practical leader who knows where to show what, whom to bring in, where I have to be clear.


Do you have any advice for young musicians?


Yes, the only advice is that this is not materialistic thing. The goal of music-making is not to avoid mistakes, but to play the music, the spirituality. It’s not about notes. It’s not enough to play notes. Every note has to radiate the emotion behind it. That’s it. This is the secret. All of the great masters, Menuhin, Milstein, Rostropovich, Richter, whom I met, only talked about this. It’s not about playing the notes, but how.