'Edge of the seat' conductor
Wednesday 10 January 2007
Janos Furst, violinist and conductor: born Budapest 8 August 1935; three times married (two sons); died Paris 3 January 2007.
Although his early promise pointed to a distinguished career as a violinist, when János Fürst stood in front of an orchestra with a baton in his hand his fate was decided: "The first time I actually conducted, it was almost a revelation. I knew I had to do this."
Fürst was a childhood prodigy, giving evidence of his natural musicality when only three by learning Beethoven's Romance in F by ear; his first concert followed when he was seven. His musical education was in good hands, those of the composers Zoltán Kodály and György Ligeti and the violinist György Garay at the Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest.
But darkness was about to descend on Hungary's Jews, and Fürst lost both his parents in the Holocaust; he survived at the head of a gang of other orphaned children. When in 1956 the Soviets suppressed the Hungarian uprising, like thousands of his compatriots Fürst fled westwards, abandoning his instrument in the rush to escape.
He completed his violin studies with his compatriot André Gertler at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he won a premier prix, before moving to Dublin in 1958, taking up a violin post in the Radio Eireann Symphony Orchestra and joining Ireland's surprisingly cosmopolitan musical establishment. He made the place very much his own: he founded the Irish Chamber Orchestra in 1963, was appointed the first-ever leader of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast in 1966 and then its Assistant Conductor, and became Principal Conductor of the RTE Symphony Orchestra in Dublin in 1987. Ireland, he said, was "the country which gave me a home, the first real home I ever had" and he spoke glowingly of the musical talent he found there.
In Belfast, Fürst discovered that an ill wind can blow a lot of good. The diary of the chief conductor there, the Romanian-born Sergiu Comissiona, was filling up with invitations to conduct elsewhere and he soon became an absentee figurehead. Fürst leapt into the gaps, in one year conducting no fewer than 44 concerts (as against Comissiona's six). It meant, of course, that he had to learn his repertoire on the hoof. For David Byers, now Chief Executive of the Ulster Orchestra but then "a young impressionable lad",
suddenly here was someone who seemed to galvanise the music, making it urgent and vital. And I do remember more of the excitement his concerts engendered rather than specific performances, although his Bartók was always outstanding - "edge of the seat" stuff, rhythmically strong, even driven.
The conductor Gary Brain, who first played alongside Fürst as a percussionist in the Belfast orchestra and then under him for a number of his later visits to New Zealand, found him
a superb leader, an excellent violinist, a consummate musician - and, though an excellent concertmaster, he was an even better conductor. He was fiery, dynamic, tender. His concerts were very good both for the musicians and public alike. Being a musician for so long he knew the inside of the profession, the need to construct your version before meeting the orchestra, the way to balance, without being rude, always an eye on intonation, to the point of being a perfectionist.
Fürst left Belfast for London in 1971, his big break coming the next year when, in the Royal Festival Hall, he stood in for the indisposed Rudolf Kempe. His international career now took off: he was appointed Principal Conductor in Malmö (1974-78), later holding other positions in Aalborg in Denmark (1980-83) and Finland, where he spent a number of years as Chief Guest Conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic. He moved to the South of France when, in 1981, he embarked on what turned out to be a nine-year term as Music Director of Marseilles Opera, although French musical politics began to wear him down.
From 1983, he held the post in parallel with the Principal Conductorship of the RTE Symphony Orchestra, replacing Bryden Thomson. In Dublin too, though, he encountered problems with the bureaucracy, which blunted his aims for reform. But he did much to improve the playing of the orchestra and expand its repertoire. He was also active with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra, the reincarnation of the group he had founded two decades earlier.
Fürst worked with most of the major British orchestras, among them the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the BBC Scottish. He expanded his operatic work, with guest visits to the English National Opera and Scottish Opera. His recordings include the complete piano concertos of John Field and a CD of Mahler song-cycles.
In Dublin in 1980 Fürst discovered another passion - teaching, beginning with a series of master-classes in conducting for the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He would go on to develop his own methodology and philosophy for teaching, now articulated in a book, Upbeat: aspects of conducting, which has yet to be published.
From 1997 he spent five years as professor of conducting at the National Conservatoire of Music in Paris, moving to the city some eight years ago. Last year he was named Head of Orchestral Conducting at the Royal College of Music in London, and had been due to conduct a concert there next week. This Friday and Saturday, he was scheduled to conduct the Ulster Orchestra, in concerts that will now be given in his memory.
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