Csaba Onczay is one of the great masters of our age and having the opportunity to interview him is a great honor for me. I write to him a little in awe, but he answers me with great cordiality … and so we begin with the usual questions.
When did you start playing and why did you choose the cello?
At the age of seven, I started playing the cello. My parents were singers and took me to the Opera very often. The most beautiful cello solos are in Verdi’s operas and that was a big impression on me. Immediately I pointed to the cello: I wanted to learn this instrument. Later, I sang as a child singer in the Carmen and La Boheme Children’s Choir and then Gianni Schicchi’s solo. I still believe in the need to sing on the cello.
Which teachers were the most decisive in your training, and from which points of view?
The first teacher is always decisive in learning the instrument. My first cello teacher taught me for 12 years. He taught me to love music and led me to plan the practice.
When you look back at your studies, are you satisfied or, if you could go back, would you change something?
I’m very satisfied, I wouldn’t change anything. And also later I had excellent professors.
Having good teachers are essential … but it’s also important to be good students! In your opinion, is there a way to tell if a child has the chance to become a good cellist?
Talent, diligence, and perseverance. These three things are the most important in learning the cello and every instrument. It depends on them to be a good cellist. An important part of talent is diligence. This is one of the most important in development.
What are the main difficulties that cellists have to overcome at the beginning of their studies?
Of course, you have to spend a lot of time practicing. But not only in the beginning of studies, but forever. They have to get used to the exam or the concert to not playing to themselves, but to the audience. At a young age, you have to deal with stage fright.
There are, in your opinion, compositions that, in any case, a teacher should include in the course of his students’ studies, or it is necessary to select for each student a different path suitable for strengthening weaknesses and improving the strengths of each one?
Usually, cellist studies at least 16 years in different schools. The highest degree is a master’s degree. There is a tremendous amount of material to be studied before graduation. These include technical studies, etudes, concertos, sonatas, solo works. In addition, orientation in different musical eras and styles. Everyone has their own character in making music. Therefore, there are no two young students who can be taught in the same way. Every cellist subtly needs different teaching.
Is it useful to participate in competitions during the study period? All students are able to calmly face competition, even accepting a possible defeat? Is it more difficult to be a competitor in a competition, or to be a member of the jury?
It is very useful, but not all students participate in competitions. There are some students who do not like to compete but may later become a world-famous artist. Others are inspired by the fact that they have to prepare for a big repertoire and show it there and then at the highest level. Competitors after defeat can win at another time. When I was young I won two international cello competitions. I am now a permanent member or president of the juries of several international competitions. I can say with a calm heart that it is harder to compete than to decide on the jury. There are two completely different things, but I feel that my success in competitions and my experience in preparation help my work in the jury’s decision.
When a student starts playing with other musicians, what are the difficulties to overcome? Is it easier to learn to play with other cellists, or in a quartet, or with a piano or in an orchestra?
Playing chamber music is the most important of all musicians. Cellists have a wonderful position. In chamber music, a quartet, a trio in other bands or an orchestra most of the time they provide the basis for sound. But the change to a soloistic role is common. This is true even at cello concertos. We can adapt better to the other part or phrases and still have to retain the radiance of our individual expression.
In your professional activity, have you had more satisfaction in playing, teaching or listening to the concert of some of your good students?
In general, I am satisfied with the students playing a concert. There are always surprises, for example, when a student plays much better at a concert than in class. Most of these become artists.
During your career, what was the experiences that gave you the most important satisfaction?
In my nearly fifty-years career, I have given hundreds of concerts around the world. I have been teaching at the Liszt Academy for fifty years and as a visiting professor in America, Asia, and Europe. I have given masterclasses all over Europe, many universities in America, Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. Currently, I also give master classes every year in Japan and America. The most important thing in my life is that I can pass on the stage experience in teaching to my cellist students.
What are your musical projects for 2020?
I will continue teaching as Professor Emeritus at the Liszt Academy of Music. I give masterclasses in Madrid, China, and Japan. I will give concerts in Hungary and Japan.
Thank you very much, Csaba, for your kindness and availability!!