“Are you busy?” I realise how silly that question was as soon as I asked it. After all, I’d been chasing Barnabás Kelemen and Katalin Kokas for weeks for a chance to talk about their roles with the Festival Academy Budapest and the event itself, a wonderfully eclectic 10-day celebration of the performing arts. When I finally did catch up with them, it was in a hastily scheduled Zoom call while they were grabbing a quick lunch in a Budapest coffee shop. “There’s lots of work,” Kelemen tells me between bites. “But we wouldn’t work if it didn’t bring us joy. It’s the unwritten rule of our life.”

Katalin Kokas and Barnabás Kelemen
© László Emmer

Keeping busy seems to be the leitmotif of the Hungarian power couple even when wearing hats other than those of the Artistic Directors of the 15th-24th July festival. The two violin virtuosos are sought-after music educators and solo and chamber music performers, at home and abroad. Kelemen’s repertoire ranges from Baroque to Kurtág, performed at venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Concertgebouw. Kokas’ international appearances include Gidon Kremer’s Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival, the Ittingen concert series founded by Sir András Schiff and tours of the Americas. When not playing or teaching, they’re overseeing the gentrification of a few old peasant houses as part of a remote retreat for musicians at the Hungarian-Slovenian border, that will also include a concert hall and a theatre. And they also count four important achievements not directly connected to music as among their credits: their children, Olga, Zsigmond, Gáspár and Hanna.

The importance the couple attaches to family is reflected also in the way they approached the organisation of the festival. “Beside (and above) music, family comes first.” They write in an online welcome note to this year’s festival. “The roots that we grew from, our branches where our fruits are born. … those great ancestors who bequeathed on us our classical music traditions, thanks to whom we can feel that – regardless of our various countries of origin – while making music, we all belong to the same family in the world of music.”

That concept of music as an extended family is also reflected in the festival’s offerings. As artistic directors, Kelemen and Kokas have put their stamp on 10 days of music, theatre and storytelling as varied as any large reunion of relatives scattered far and wide. That in itself is an imposing achievement. But there’s more. The festival includes the International Ilona Fehér Violin Competition, named after the famed music educator of the same name, and master classes for solo instrumentalists, string quartets and chamber music formations. 

And that teaching project doesn’t begin or end with the festival itself. “Musical education is part of the festival,” Kelemen tells me. “But it’s something we focus on throughout the year, and thankfully, we have the help of Hungarian soloists who are well known worldwide. They travel not only to the bigger cities but also to small towns and even to areas outside our borders with a strong Hungarian minority to give master classes and concerts.”

Nicolas Altstaedt
© Festival Academy Budapest

At the festival, an eclectic group of international as well as Hungarian names are joining the two virtuosos, both as educators and soloists. They include German-French artist Nicolas Altstaedt, the internationally renowned cellist and conductor whose repertoire is as varied as that of the festival itself. Also coming: Norwegian violinist Vilde Frang; Russian-Israeli trumpet artist Sergei Nakariakov; Hungarian conductor Gergely Madaras; Romanian viola player Razvan Popovic; English cellist and conductor Jonathan Cohen; Norway’s Knut Erik Sundquist, the double bass genius; and Israeli violinist Hagai Shaham, whose status as the last student of Ilona Fehér links him to the festival’s competition of the same name.

The programme is as varied as the artists. To commemorate the victims of the war in Ukraine, both the festival and its first concert will open on 15th July with a Ukrainian folk song in Beethoven’s rarely performed arrangement. It will be followed by performances of Béla Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale), a theatrical work “to be read, played and danced.” With its formal end on 24th July, The Festival Academy Budapest 2022 concludes with Baroque and Romantic compositions, a contemporary piece boldly mixing Baroque and Romantic elements and variations on Ukrainian folk songs by English composer Malcolm Arnold. 

But these two concerts are only bookends to nine other performing arts presentations as varied as they are exciting. They include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Trio in A minor, Péter Esterházy’s universe with the performance “Esterházy Fragments”, Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, Dvořák’s String Quintet in G major, several Bach violin concertos, Schoenberg’s String Quartet no. 2 in F sharp minor, the Goldberg Variations transcribed for string trio and dozens of other musical gems, some performed in the original, some experimented with and others accompanied by narration and drama. 

The Festival is spread over a variety of unique venues
© Festival Academy Budapest

The venues are as diverse as the event itself; the Grand Hall of the gorgeously Art Nouveau Franz Liszt Academy of Music, the recently renovated, neo-Renaissance House of Millenium, the effortlessly hip Café Lumen, the Kálvin Square Protestant church, the Royal Riding Hall of the Buda Castle and the nearby Carmelite Monastery. Side events, including a flash mob, are scattered elsewhere through the city, some with snacks, such as the typically Hungarian bread and dripping. 

It all sounds exciting – almost dauntingly so, considering the choices the festival presents. But the emphasis is on intimacy, on connecting participants with the audience and each other, Kokas said. “It’s hard to get the opportunity to talk for more than a minute or two with the jury in the biggest competitions in the world,” she tells me. “Here, all the competition contestants not only get taught by the jury members and some of the festival artists. They also get a chance to get to interact with them beyond the lessons, to meet and learn from them. It’s not only about the prizes. We try to open the doors for their future.”

The Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest
© Festival Academy Budapest

It wasn’t always like this. Up to 2019, the festival was more conventional: the performers on stage, the audience below, the teachers teaching, their students learning. It took the onset of the Covid pandemic to change things, says Kelemen. “It was then that we realised that we needed to reach out more. We connected in many more ways than before, through concerts online and on Hungarian radio and through master classes given by our friends who were willing to travel to even remote villages to give master classes for students who couldn’t come to them. We grew during this time, much more than we could have imagined.”

The need to interconnect was a lesson learned, Kokas says. She sees “a wish for even more intimacy” in the festivals of the future. “The audience has changed,” she says. “There is a desire to connect with other people. Music helps to achieve this goal. Music is no longer selfish with the goal of playing huge pieces in long programmes and then the audience goes home. Less is more. Instead of playing for hundreds of people at once, our goal is to play for 20 or 40 people and then give them a chance to talk, to ask questions. Covid gave us a chance to go into people’s living rooms. That’s part of our goal. To go back there with small concerts, with students and teachers who can be together.”

Click here to see the events of the Festival Academy Budapest.

This article was sponsored by Festival Academy Budapest