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Long-awaited Varga takes TSO podium

Carol Hsieh
Staff writer

DOCA commissioner Liu Wei-gong and Gilbert Varga pose for photos during a press conference May 16, Taipei City. (Photo courtesy of DOCA, Taipei City)On May 16, the Department of Cultural Affairs (DOCA) in Taipei announced Gilbert Varga, the new principal conductor of Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO), and his coming debut "Germanic Music Revival" that is to take place June 14 in Zhongshan Hall, Taipei City.

Arriving in Taipei just the day before, Varga did not seem to be affected by jetlag when he greeted DOCA officials, TSO musicians, and the press that were present with friendly warmth.

Varga, son and pupil of the acclaimed Hungarian violinist Tibor Varga, studied conducting with three distinctive maestros-- Franco Ferrara, Sergiu Celibidache, and Charles Bruck. Renowned for his authoritative, energetic yet graceful baton technique that draws out emotions from the orchestra, Varga focused on conducting chamber orchestras in Europe during the earlier years of his career. He worked extensively with the Tibor Vagar Chamber Orchestra, and later became the chief conductor of several European ensembles including the Hofer Symphoniker and Philharmonic Hungarica. From 1997 to 2008, Varga was the music director of the Basque National Symphony Orchestra, leading tours across Europe and South America.

Since that time, Varga has conducted, guest-conducted, or worked as music director with over forty major orchestras in Europe, North and Central America, Australia, and Asia in music centers such as Berlin, Frankfurt, Budapest, Glasgow, and Lisbon. His reputation grew rapidly the last decade in the United States as he conducted the symphony orchestras of Los Angeles, Baltimore, Houston, and Minnesota, the latter which he conducts every year, among many other cities.

DOCA commissioner Liu Wei-gong (left) and Gilbert Varga (center) interact with the press May 16, Taipei City. At the right is TSO Assistant Conductor Wu, Shou-ling. (Photo courtesy of Carol Hsieh)Varga releases recordings with labels including ASV, Claves Records, and Koch International. His recording of concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev with Anna Vinnitskaya and Deutsches symphonie-Orchester Berlin, released in January 2011 on Naïve Records, was praised with five stars by BBC Music Magazine. Hamelin, Gerstein, Mørk, and Ehnes are among the soloists he frequently works with.

A "Home" is the key

Having such a prominent figure to take over the podium of the TSO is certainly exciting for the DOCA and Taipei music goers, especially given that the position of principal conductor has been vacant for the past four years.

DOCA commissioner Liou Wei-gong said that it is bliss for Taipei citizens that he is here. The principal conductor is the soul and image of a symphony orchestra. Despite the fact that the acclaimed TSO has worked with world-celebrated musicians such as cellist Yo Yo Ma, Mstislav Rostropovich, and conductor Yuri Temirkanov, its characteristic as an internationally recognized orchestra remains vague due to long-term absence of a principal conductor, said Liou.

Ko, Chi-liang (first from left), former National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) general director and Chen, Chengxiong (first from right), former NSO conductor, pose for photo with Varga (second from right), DOCA Commissioner Liu Wei-gong (center), and TSO Acting Director Lin Huoy Fen (second from left).Faced with this predicament, Varga is not as worried as expected. "I feel no pressure at all because I know that we all work together here in the same direction," he smiled to Liou at the press conference and said, "One of the main reasons that I'm here is your vision and commitment of the future of the orchestra."

He continued to point out that the key element for the future of the orchestra, which the commissioner also recognizes, is a home, a base which most major orchestras own.

"Without a home I don't see how it will continue in the long run," said the conductor.

"Not having conductor for few years doesn't make it easier," he went on, "we certainly are aiming now to go into the direction of our first concert in our new home."

Liou concurred by noting that a plan to carry out that goal is underway. With that and Varga's charisma and ambition, he is convinced that the TSO will set its own distinctive stance in the global music arena.

The commissioner also expressed hope for more, stronger international networking for the TSO. Now with Varga's distinguished artistic attainment and good professional connections, the TSO is expected to gain opportunities to perform with more maestros, and hopefully become a top member of the world music community.

How it all began

Varga speaks with TSO musicians May 16, Taipei City. (Photo courtesy of DOCA, Taipei City)Varga is no stranger to the TSO. The artist had three concerts with the TSO in 2009 and 2011. His manners, conducting style, and musical interpretations have been well received by the musicians of the TSO.

According to the DOCA, there were two phases to the selection of the principal conductor. TSO members were given a say in suggesting candidates in addition to recommendations from the concertmaster and independent professionals, while invitations were sent out to potential candidates, many of whom the TSO has worked with. A committee of five, assembled by the concertmaster, then assessed the compiled list, and in the mean time probed the candidates' inclination to working in Taipei.

This phase was followed by a comprehensive evaluation based on results from the first phase including surveys, interview records, and candidates' personal intentions. This was executed by a seven-member committee, which also included TSO musicians.

During the selection phases, comprehensive results that favored Varga won the TSO over. According to the commissioner, Varga is deemed a scrupulous conductor; he is straightforward in giving commands and persistent in reaching goals, which were virtues that the committee valued. His strength in Germanic, Romantic and 20th century music is also in accordance with what the TSO was looking for.

Having said that, it took Varga and the DOCA nine months to settle the terms and conditions.

In the eyes of a European like himself, Varga admitted the whole administrative procedure has been long and complex, but "it always works out in the end."

"We've been spending a lot of time talking about the future," although not yet about the details; however, priorities and goals were clearly set, said Varga.

According to Wu Shou-ling, the assistant conductor of the TSO, many of the programs in 2013 and 2014 could not have been put together without Varga's assistance. She said Varga has been very patient and generous, making calls and helping to arrange the programs.

Expectations of the TSO

Varga conducts at ease in this undated file photo. (Photo courtesy of DOCA, Taipei City)Growing up in a family with both parents as musicians, Varga believes that music is an international language. His father "was never boring." He taught him that music with all the nuances provides many more possibilities to convey messages than words.

Maybe that influence is why Varga, who mostly worked in the U.S. and Europe, embraces the challenge of working in Taipei. Varga thinks that Taipei is an incredibly busy city with friendly, open people, which is unusual elsewhere. In such a cultural landscape, the TSO has been a healthy, confident orchestra and is motivated to move forward. Fascinated, he wishes to be able to promote the city's own culture and at the same time see it open to new ones.

Varga added that when he was 22, he wrote down on a piece of paper professions related to music that he could think of doing after his career of a violinist halted abruptly due to dystonia. He realized then, when he gazed and pondered on the list of jobs, that it takes so many people to make the music industry. With this in mind, he appealed to the public to be curious about him and the TSO and to listen to them, as they all expect that Taipei will get the best orchestra it deserves.

Varga also looks forward to future interactions with other symphony orchestras in Taiwan.

"I'm thankful that TSO is not the only orchestra in Taiwan," Varga said, adding that a sense of competition helps strengthening each orchestra as they can compare differences and learn from each other.

Debut concert

His debut on June 14 as TSO Principal Conductor will feature classic Germanic masterpieces, including Mozart piano concerto No. 24 in C minor, Haydn's Symphony No. 1 in D major, and Brahms' Symphony No. 1 in C minor with the renowned Argentine pianist Nelson Goerner. For more information on ticketing, please visit the website at http://www.artsticket.com.tw/CKSCC2005/EHome/EHome00/index.aspx .