The Iron Clap

From before our arrival in Budapest, the Liszt Ferenc Academy of Music was undergoing a complete renovation, the facade propped up essentially by nothing more than beams while the interior was gutted. Last autumn, a grand opening ceremony was held on Liszt’s birthday, October 22, and the school officially reopened for instruction and performances in January. Since then, I’ve been longing to get a peek inside, as I heard the newly renovated grand hall was stunning, both visually and acoustically. For one reason or another, I was unable to make it work until yesterday. It was the perfect opportunity – our friend Aaron is visiting, and he loves the orchestra. The Zuglói Filharmónia was playing (named the National Youth Orchestra in 2011 for its high-quality performances) and the pieces they selected were by two of my favorite composers, Dvořák and Brahms. Unfortunately, Richie’s workday ended around the same time as the second piece began, but Aaron and I had a blast.

Aaron and me waiting for the performance to begin!
Aaron and I waiting for the performance to begin!
A half-panorama of the grand hall - it's quite an intimate space, with all of the seats feeling very close to the stage. We were in the left balcony and had a wonderful view of the cellos and basses.
A half-panorama of the grand hall – it’s quite an intimate space, with all of the seats feeling very close to the stage. We were in the left balcony and had a wonderful view of the conductor and orchestra.
The Zuglói Filharmónia with their guest conductor, Zoltán Kocsis
The Zuglói Filharmónia with their guest conductor, Zoltán Kocsis

The two pieces they played were wonderful – Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. I (weirdly) have a preference for pieces in minor keys, so this was heaven for me. The cellist in the first piece was magnificent and I really enjoyed seeing the relationship between him and the conductor as he played.

The first time I attended an event in Hungary, I was incredibly confused at the end, when the audience began their rounds of applause. Instead of a standing ovation, or ordinary clapping, Hungarians have vastaps, or iron clapping. Applause begins naturally, then slows to a rhythmic “slow clap” until the honored person (such as the conductor or the soloist) returns to the stage for his bows. Once they are onstage, clapping resumes its normal speed… until someone begins the slowing down again, for further bows and accolades. It can happen four or five times in a row! There’s even a paper on the phenomenon, authored by a few Hungarians. The name vastaps has a few possible origins – some say that it’s because the applause would continue after the theatre’s iron curtain would come down, signaling the end of the performance, to induce the performers to return. However, a few websites claim that it was how dissidents clapped after speeches of their Soviet oppressors during the days of the symbolic Iron Curtain. Either way, it’s now the standard symbol of an excellent Hungarian performance. I filmed a few seconds of the vastaps at the end of the second piece – you can tell how the audience shifts almost immediately from regular applause to slow, synchronized claps in the first few seconds.

If you visit Budapest, I highly recommend taking in a performance at the Liszt Academy. Prices are often much lower than the other orchestra venues in town – for example, we had the most expensive tickets at 2500 forint per person, approximately $10. For the visual and auditory experience, that price is almost unbelievable! You can check out upcoming performances and a 360° view of the Grand Hall, as well as purchase tickets, on their website. Performances are generally on hold during the summer months, but there are many events each week from September through May.

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