The Arty Semite

Perfectly Pitched Music From a Hungarian Fable

By Benjamin Ivry

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Courtesy of MarkusChor Hannover

On September 21 at a church in Hannover, the Hungarian Jewish conductor and organist Andor Izsák will lead a concert of liturgical music under the auspices of The European Centre for Jewish Music (EZJM) which he founded in 1988 and still directs. A special zest should infuse the event, as a new biography, “Andor the Itinerant Musician: a Jewish Musical Life” appeared in June from Georg Olms Verlag.

Author Arno Beyer’s limpidly written account reads like a fable, and indeed at times, Izsák’s life does seem at least in part fable. Born in the Budapest ghetto in 1944, Izsák and his family were among the minority of Hungarian Jews who survived the war, and despite a near-escape from an exploding roadside bomb, the infant Andor’s ears were gifted with absolute pitch.

At six, Andor was further inspired by an at-home concert by teenaged Hungarian Jewish musicians, including the future great violinist György Pauk and pianist Peter Frankl. By his bar mitzvah, Izsák was in love with organ music, which since 1810 had been a feature of the Neolog tradition of Hungarian Judaism, a movement akin to Conservative Judaism.

Izsák’s parents supported his choice to play organ music, despite their own Orthodox beliefs, aware that in postwar socialist Hungary, Jews were seen as enemies of the people because they supposedly received support from America. At Budapest soccer games, Izsák recalls, crowds routinely taunted as “Jews” wholly goyish visiting teams with tenuously Jewish links.

During Israel’s 1967 Six Day War, Izsák, by then an organist at Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue was warned by two undercover policemen that if he persisted in performing music in synagogues, he would be jailed as a Zionist enemy of the people. Fortunately, his wife, the pianist Erika Lux, was offered a teaching job in Germany where the couple moved, first to Bavaria and later to Hannover.

Contacting survivors in Israel, America, South America, Australia and South Africa for scraps of what was once a thriving musical tradition, Izsák has painstakingly reassembled a corpus of Jewish liturgical music. The local Hannover government first offered Izsák headquarters for the EZJM at a former funeral parlor in its municipal Jewish cemetery, an idea he politely declined. Then the EZJM purchased the Seligmann Villa, former home of a financier once painted by Max Liebermann, which should open soon as a center for the music which, as Izsák states, was “silenced twice: by Nazis and then by Soviets.”

Listen to Andor Izsák speak in 2010 about the importance of tolerance.


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