Gábor Takács-Nagy

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Hungarian violinist-turned-conductor and founder of the Takács Quartet this month takes the helm as music director at the Manchester Camerata

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On the eve of taking up his new post as music director at Manchester Camerata, we talk to the violinist and conductor about his programming for the season, why Haydn has been adopted by the Hungarians, and his love of football.

You founded and played with the Takács Quartet for almost 20 years and only moved to conducting relatively recently. What made you change focus?
The story goes back to 1991 when the Takács Quartet played with conductor Sir Georg Solti. During the rehearsal in his house in Hampstead, he suddenly stopped and told me: ‘Gábor, you could be a brilliant conductor because you have very good body language.’ I never thought I would conduct, but in 2002 I was invited to conduct a Music Academy orchestra in Switzerland and I fell in love with it. It’s much more difficult than people think, though. And it feels very interesting going on stage without an instrument – as a conductor you can be creative without even playing a note.

Your first season with the Camerata revolves around musical ‘Portraits’. The first, on 24 September, is ‘Portrait of a Hungarian’ and includes music by the Hungarian composers Bartók and Liszt, as well as music by Haydn. Why did you chose this programme?
I live in Switzerland with my wife – she is English, I’m Hungarian and we have children who speak three languages, so I am quite aware of national identity in music. So when I started programming for Manchester Camerata I thought I’d start with my roots and finish the season with a British programme (26 May). Bartók and Liszt I consider to be the two greatest Hungarian composers. And we call Haydn half-Hungarian because he was born only 30 miles from the border (in Austria) and spent many years as the court composer of Prince Esterhazy, in Hungary. He heard Hungarian gypsy music and heard the Hungarian language, with its accent always on the first syllable – so he was kind of Hungarian.

What are you looking forward to about working with Manchester Camerata?
What a musician always hopes for: the highest creative level possible. They are very disciplined, high-level players. And I am Hungarian and like every Hungarian I exaggerate things. But this helps in playing music and I was pleasantly surprised how easily they got into my way and how much they liked it. Actually it broke the ice between us when I told them that my wife was born in Burnley and I am a big Manchester United fan – since I was ten years old.

How does your background as a chamber musician inform your conducting?
You know I’m a big football fan and I feel that the secret of the greatest teams is that you share the joy of what you’re doing but you make others a better player. And in the Takács we played with lots of joy and we made the others better players. I learned a lot in the quartet in my 20 years and I hope I can bring that to the Camerata. I remember the advice Solti gave me: ‘Look, all of us have doubts about what we are doing. But never never show them in front of an orchestra’. You have to stand there believing in yourself and in the music and in what you are doing.

Gábor Takács-Nagy begins his role as music director at the Manchester Camerata with a concert on 24 September: 'Portrait of a Hungarian: Part 1'. Part 2 will take place on 18 January, also with Takács-Nagy conducting.

Interview by Elizabeth Davis