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The Cimbalom Takes the Spotlight in Budapest for the First-Ever World Competition

A. S. Ivanoff 2019.08.16.

Musician Miklós Lukács intends to set the world on fire with his charismatic instrument: the cimbalom. He has created a master plan to thrust it into the global spotlight by lifting it from its legendary folk domain into a 21st century context. Since his own successful musical sphere encompasses classical, jazz, free improvisation, folk, traditional gypsy music, and pop material, why not create a global competition to guarantee that goal?

Thus, his happy brainchild was born this year: the first-ever “BMC International Cimbalom Competition.” Naturally, it would take place in Hungary, the primary center of cimbalom activity in the world, and where the instrument is a “Hungaricum” — the official term for what is designated a national treasure. Naturally, it will be at the Budapest Music Center, which is a forward-thinking venue that runs contemporary, classical, and jazz programs in addition to producing recordings on their own label. And naturally, Lukács himself will be the happy host and Jury Leader during the competition week, Aug. 25-31.

BMC. Photo by Tamás Bujnovszky/BMC

The cimbalom, a musical instrument that has played a starring role in Hungary’s musical heritage for many generations — largely within Roma musical circles — is a table instrument with strings played with two wire beaters, or mallets. Throughout its long Eurasian history (its origins date back to the Assyrian empire), it has appeared in many sizes and string tunings, but the modern concert version was established in 1874 by Vencel József Schunda, in his atelier on Hajós street, near the Hungarian State Opera House. At that time, the cimbalom was considered only a folk instrument played on Budapest street corners, so Schunda wanted to standardize and mass-produce it, in a broader effort to give it a stronger Hungarian national identity. The Music History Museum in Buda has several Schunda cimbaloms in their collection, including the model played by Hungary’s renowned and influential master, Aladár Rácz (1886-1958) who was called the “Franz Liszt of the cimbalom.”

The BMC Concert Hall. Photo by Tamás Bujnovszky/BMC

Lest we fear that this instrument will be relegated to any more history museums, Lukács, in an interview with Hungary Today, assures us the cimbalom’s future existence is secure, despite the fact that the craft of building them is still a narrow niche: “There are only a handful (6-8) of cimbalom makers [in Hungary] who are licensed, and only two of them have a master’s degree: Ákos Nagy and Balázs Kovács. The master’s degree guarantees the best quality. Both Ákos and Balázs have their workshops in Budapest, on Hajós street and Thaly Kálmán street respectively.”

Miklós Lukács. Photo by Zsófia Raffay/BMC

Though most players of the past have grown up with this particular instrument in their family, Lukács sees a bigger picture: one that includes players from any cultural background, and especially appealing to young players. “Fortunately, cimbalom teaching is in great shape in Hungary,” he explains. “You can earn a diploma at the Liszt Academy of Music in [both] the classical music department and in the folk department. The number of professional cimbalom players is increasing. There is a large number of active professional cimbalom players due to the multitude of genres. I hope this tendency will be a lasting one.”

Pointing out an unmissable 21st-century opportunity, Lukács adds:

Contemporary composers quite love the cimbalom both in Hungary and abroad, showing its many colours and possibilities.”

Many well-known composers, including Stravinsky and Kodály, have included the instrument in their compositions in the past, but new scores will make it an urgent necessity to have the cimbalom’s finest players in demand for engagements all over the world.

Photo by Krisztina Csendes/BMC

In keeping with his progressive vision, his new competition will require a wide range of expertise from the contestants: it requires European classical scores that reach as far back as the Baroque era, traditional folk styles, 20th century scores, jazz, free-form performance, and music that leaps into the future with fresh new compositions.

When asked what specific aspects he listens for in the competitors’ playing, Lukács replied:

The most important aspect is that the cimbalom player be an excellent musician first and foremost, with an emphasis on the word ‘musician’. A sense of beauty, impeccable instrumental technique, a high level of musical intelligence, a deep knowledge of genres and styles, and chamber music playing skills are also very important aspects for me.”

As of this writing, thirteen competitors from Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Chile, and the United States will perform in rounds of semifinals and finals within two musical categories. The culmination is the grand finale concert on the 31st. Prizes total 18,000 Euros, comprised of six individual prizes in each of the categories. All the competition events are free admission. In addition to Lukács, the jury will also include Kálmán Balogh, Péter Eötvös, Gergely Fazekas, Ágnes Szakály, and András Szalai.

Photo by Krisztina Csendes/BMC

After the daily competitive rounds, audiences can enjoy evening concerts that feature the cimbalom: Lukács and his band Cimbiózis will perform in BMC’s Opus Jazz Club on Aug 27, followed by Kálmán Balogh’s Gypsy Cimbalom Band on the 28th, the Gypsy Music Concert in the BMC Library on the 29th, and the Classical Concert on the 30th.

Kálmán Balogh’s Gypsy Cimbalom Band

As a bonus extension to the competition, the winners will join cimbalom players from the jury in a special concert at MÜPA on December 1, 2019. So if Miklós Lukács’ dream comes true, the sounds of the cimbalom should soon be beguiling the eyes, ears, and hearts of the world.

BMC International Cimbalom Competition
August 25-31, 2019
Budapest Music Center
H-1093 Budapest, Mátyás str. 8.
Phone +36 1 216 7894
bmc.hu/en

Featured photo illustration by Krisztina Csendes/BMC