The flute player talks politics
Two things happened to Hungarian virtuoso flautist Noemi Gyori recently that could be a sign of frightening times. She lives in north London with her husband, fellow Hungarian, Gergely Madaras, himself a rising-star conductor, and their three year old daughter.
London is the latest and, so far, the longest stop for the couple since they left Hungary. Their careers have propelled them to some of Europe’s great centres of music, including Berlin, Munich — where Gyori took a soloist’s diploma — and Vienna, where she performed with the Vienna Philharmonic. She regularly returns to Munich to play with the Orchestra Jakobsplatz, founded in 2005 by the conductor Daniel Grossman, which specialises in Jewish music.
“I’m not religious, though I feel very strongly Jewish,” she says in English that is fluent, articulate and spoken with care to ensure her thoughts are communicated accurately. Her description of herself applies equally to many of the people from her life in Hungary, which she regularly visits to perform, record and visit her parents. “I come from a Hungarian Jewish family. I’m basically surrounded by Jewish intellectuals and people who strongly value Jewish culture,” she says. And although the equivalent of this statement could be come from the daughters of any number of Jewish communities in the European diaspora, it’s hard not to place Gyori’s in the particular context of the dominant far right, antisemitic and anti-immigrant opinion that is currently to be found in her country.
Still, for the past six years, home, very happily, has been London. Husband Gergely has won a fellowship at the English National Opera while Noemi is doing a Performance PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, the first time a flautist has been accepted on the course.
We meet for coffee at the Hampstead Theatre, not far from where Gyori lives. And, although the subject of conversation is her latest CD — a luscious collection of sonatas by Schubert, Reinecke and Franck, for which she is accompanied by Katalin Csillagh on the piano — our conversation is dominated by a sense of unease about the rising tide of nationalism in Europe and beyond, particularly in Britain and Hungary.
There’s no suggestion that she sees in Theresa May’s Brexit-embracing government an equivalent to Viktor Orban’s populist regime in Hungary but Gyori has detected similarities in the attitudes of the country’s people. Or some of them. Take the two incidents experienced on the London tube and in a Budapest taxi.
“I don’t want to exaggerate,” she says, interrupting herself even before she has started telling the story. “These things can happen anywhere. I don’t take it too seriously, OK? But of course, when they happen you can’t help but put them in context.”
To the Budapest incident first: Gyori — who has thick black hair, huge dark eyes — hails a cab. Once she is in the back, the driver engages her in conversation. He wants to tell her about his father.
“He tells me that he feels very proud about him,” she says. “And particularly proud that his father participated in the Hitler Youth, and was a devoted Nazi.”
Gyori’s response was perhaps predictable given her family history.
“My grandfather survived Auschwitz and Mauthausen,” she explains. “My grandmother survived the ghetto in Budapest. All their family were killed. Her mother’s side of the family were even less fortunate.
“I said, ‘You know what? I don’t think you should be proud of that. My grandfather was killed by the Nazis.’” The cab driver was completely stunned, which is revealing in itself. Interestingly, however, Gyori doesn’t see the incident as a personal attack on her, or her Jewishness.
“I think he just expected me to agree with him; he just wanted to have a conversation.”
The episode is, says Gyori, symptomatic of a Hungary in which many people see the country as the guardian of Christian and white Europe.
It’s a very different political climate from the one in which the 33-year-old musician was raised by her psychologist mother and her father, an academic.
They were not a particularly musical family. Yet a combination of luck and circumstance drew Gyori to her vocation: a girl next door who played the instrument and who Gyori wanted to emulate from the age of five; the “crazy” neighbour of her grandfather who had a collection of old instruments, including an American silver flute (she now has a gold flute).
And then there was her wonderful teacher who saw many pupils end up as professional musicians playing in Hungary’s internationally prestigious National Philharmonic Orchestra. Though few, if any, of those musicians have gone on to play New York’s Carnegie Hall as has Gyori.
Yet rather than live a life of rarefied exclusivity like many of her peers, Gyori prefers to engage with the wider world, which probably explains why our conversation is more political than musical, and perhaps also her response to the incident on the Tube.
“I was talking to my daughter and suddenly a woman said that I should speak to my daughter in English! Then she said that I was destroying her future because she wouldn’t be able to speak English properly. ‘We are in England,’ she said, ‘and in England we speak English.’”
For Gyori, these events are no more than straws in the wind. But if they signal a possible future, that doesn’t make them any less worrying.
“I can see weird parallels with what I experienced in Hungary and what I experienced here,” she says.
“What upsets me most is the growth of these attitudes globally; the xenophobic, populist thinking. In Hungary, it results in people being judged by whether or not they are white and Christian instead of what they are like as a person.”
I ask what the woman on the Tube looked like. The answer: white, middle-aged, respectable.
“I told her I speak five languages to a pretty good standard and I don’t think that has ruined my life. On the contrary, my daughter speaks beautiful English and Hungarian.”
The cab driver said his father was in the Nazi Youth
Noemi Gyori: girl with a golden flute