Cellist András Fejér reflects on home as Takács Quartet set to bow in Tucson
World-renowned string quartet to perform Arizona Friends of Chamber Music concert Weds. evening
In perfect unison with the theme of home — a spiritual place of belonging that one instinctively returns to time and again — the emotional impact of its absence and the human capacity for renewal, Takács Quartet cellist and founding member András Fejér reflects on his past and recent work, ahead of a concert in Tucson on Wednesday evening.
András Fejér was born in 1955 into a musical family. His father was a cellist and conductor. His mother was a pianist.
"I was born in Hungary in a lovely little town called Szeged," he said. The family later relocated and Fejér came of age in the capital city of Budapest.
As the Soviet Union weakened at the end of the 1980s, the Eastern bloc countries disintegrated. Hungary began a peaceful transition towards a democratic system.
"Bureaucratically speaking, Hungary was under communist rule until 1989." Fejér said, "But technically, especially starting in the late 1970s, Hungary began to uphold socialist aspects, while trying to lose the hard communist party lines, more and more."
"My family was lucky to have had prominent doctors in it." Fejér recalled, "We had a nice apartment in Budapest, albeit small by Western standards."
"I had a very uneventful childhood."
For students with aptitude, the communist government's championing of the arts and sports — disciplines that the party felt that the citizenry could excel in — came as a benison.
"In every school there were specialized music departments on the elementary school level," Fejér said. "So those that were interested were put into classes with daily music lessons. Lessons which paid off in definite ways later on in life."
Fejér began playing the cello in earnest at the age of seven.
"I was in the first grade," he said.
"My father, a cellist, once declared, 'Please don't let any of the kids play violin.' As legend has it, his father was unwilling to listen to the incessant high-pitched squeaks and squeals — the types of sounds produced by bow hair that is not properly gripping and vibrating the strings — of a neophyte violinist practicing."
"But aside from carrying the bulky instrument in the early years. I loved it. I love it even more now," Fejér said. "So I consider myself lucky."
From as far back as he can remember, his parents held string quartet weekends, with invited friends. Music filled the apartment. Which for the young cellist, proved to be most influential, remaining forever etched in his memory. As does the memory of the sumptuous desserts his mother used to prepare for those sessions.
"Growing up, in my formative years, the leading Hungarian quartets were huge influences: The Tátrai Quartet and Bartók Quartet," Fejér said. "My parents were friends with those people. I wanted to make music the way that they did. I listened to them. I played with them. That example was all I needed. I knew that was what I wanted to do."
The trajectory was set.
Classical music imprinted in his DNA.
"I love rock 'n' roll. But, for me it needs to have melody and harmony."
After graduating from music high school, Fejér applied to the Franz Liszt Academy — a program that required auditioning.
"As opposed to Western music schools, ours were free. But you had to prove yourself. Acceptance was strictly merit based," Fejér said.
It was at the academy that a nascent Takács Quartet began to coalesce.
"We were 19 and 20. We were already into our second year at the academy."
"It was my idea. I knew the viola player [Gábor Ormai]. We were friends. The two violinists we just knew of," Fejér recalled, with fondness.
Taking fate into their own hands, one day Fejér and Ormai approached Károly Schranz and Gábor Takács-Nagy with a proposition.
"We were lucky," Fejér said. "They were keen and enthused."
The young aspirants christened themselves Takács Quartet after first violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy.
"It is customary to name a quartet after its leader," said Fejér.
"All we knew then was that we wanted to be serious. We wanted to work diligently, because there were great, great quartets ahead of us, most notably the Amernet String Quartet."
In 1983, a colleague offered them a prestigious position as quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
They accepted the job and left Hungary for the United States.
"The job description, that of quartet-in-residence, attached to a university, only existed in America at that time. We had already traveled a fair amount from Budapest and saw the difficulties," Fejér said. "We decided if we really wanted to take the next big step in the quartet's development that would only be possible in the West."
"An arrangement which allowed us to rehearse as much as we wanted and to travel freely."
In addition to performing in the United States and abroad, Fejer and the other members are involved in academia.
"We also teach graduate and postgraduate quartets, here at the university, plus individual students," he said.
In 2002-2004, the Takács Quartet released all 16 of Beethoven's string quartets from the early, middle, and late period, in a complete survey that The New Yorker lauded as "the most richly expressive modern account of this titanic cycle."
Fejér recalls that recording sessions were exhaustive.
"We had two recording periods per year, sometimes three. It was a major project requiring extensive rehearsing and planning. The material is so dense and has such depth. That is why it took three years to complete," he said.
"What made it wonderful was that we arranged our concert schedule and concert programming in such a way that after performing several concerts, it would culminate with the recording," said Fejér.
"Recording all the Beethoven string quartets is considered the top of the string quartet profession," Fejér said with pride. "So we approached the project with humble and dedicated day and night practice and rehearsing."
Now, on a special concert tour featuring works by Benjamin Britten, Béla Bartók, and Antonín Dvorák — with all pieces on the program incorporating the theme of home — Takács Quartet presents "Musical Voyages at Home and Abroad" on Jan. 25 at the Leo Rich Theater in Tucson, in a program inspired by first violinist Edward Dusinberre's latest book "Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home."
Fejér ruminated on the meaning of home.
"I am on the side of Richard Burton, the great actor, who said, 'Home is where the books are.'"
"So in this respect, Boulder is my home. My friends, immediate family, musical scores, sheet music, and books are all here," he said.
As for the future, Fejér offered, "We record two compact discs a year. Very recently we released our latest disc (on Jan. 6, 2023) featuring Stephen Hough's new quartet and works by Henri Dutilleux and Maurice Ravel. Also, we are listening to the master tape of our latest recording session, works by Antonín Dvořák and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, (a 19th century English composer/activist who was referred to by white New York musicians as the "Black Mahler," owing to his musical success and Anglo-African lineage). And in May we'll be recording Schubert."
"The beautiful thing about the pieces that we are working on is that there is no end in sight."
Now entering their 48th season, Fejér remains eager to face the future as part of the string quartet he founded so many years ago.
"We know that there will be questions. And we are happy to argue them and perhaps solve them when they arise later on," he said.
"It's a never-ending circle. And we love it," Fejér enthused. "It keeps the mind open, the need to work, and the morale high."
"I am happy where we are," Fejér said. "And hopefully we will still be happy in the years to come."