Saturday 21 May 2022

Rediscovering the joys of playing together: Noemi Gyori & Gergely Madaras their disc of flute duets

Noemi Gyori and Gergely Madaras (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Noemi Gyori and Gergely Madaras (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)

Gergely Madaras is best known as a conductor (he is music director of Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, and was the inaugural Sir Charles Mackerras Fellow at English National Opera), but he originally studied the flute and for many years had a duo partnership with the flautist Noemi Gyori, who happens to be his wife.  Noemi is an international recitalist, the first flautist to hold a PhD from the Royal Academy of Music; she teaches at the Royal Northern College of Music and the University of Manchester, while being principal flute of the Jewish Chamber Orchestra in Munich. 

The two have returned to playing the flute together and with pianist Alexander Ullman have recently issued a disc of music for two flutes by the Doppler brothers (Karl and Franz) and Friedrich Kuhlau on the Rubicon label. I recently met up with Gergely and Noemi by Zoom to discuss the importance of the Dopplers to flautists, rediscovering the joy of playing together again during lockdown, and how they balance their musical life with married life.

Franz Doppler by Ágost Elek Canzi (1853)
Franz Doppler by Ágost Elek Canzi (1853)
Whilst their names were barely known to me, flautists everywhere will know the Dopplers' names. Franz Doppler (1821-1883) and Karl Doppler (1825-1900) were multi-talented Hungarian brothers, flautists, conductors and arrangers. Their importance in the flute repertoire is that as composers they were able to showcase the brilliance of the instrument in the same way that Liszt did for the piano and Paganini did for the violin. The Dopplers showed that the flute could be as scene-stealing as the violin and was capable of being an equal partner to the piano. Gergely and Noemi have enjoyed playing this repertoire together for over 20 years. They find it uplifting and rewarding, and it helps that the Dopplers' use of traditional Hungarian melodies meant that they find a strong connection with the music and wanted to share it, and the sound of two flutes playing brilliantly together can be exciting. 

The idea of two flutes playing together was common during the Baroque era (where they would be joined by continuo instruments), but the prominence of the Dopplers' music for flute comes partly from the way the instrument seemed to drift out of fashion. There is plenty of flute repertoire from Quantz, WF Bach and CPE Bach right through to Mozart and his contemporaries, and there are even arrangements of music from Mozart's operas for two flutes! But then there is a chunk of repertoire missing. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the flute did not develop as quickly as other instruments and seemed to fall out of favour as a Romantic instrument. Theobald Boehm developed his flute in 1847, a design that radically altered the technical capability of the instrument and increased its volume too but which changed the fingerings and a lot of players were initially reluctant to switch. So, though the Baroque flute was a leading instrument of the day, Noemi feels that this lack of classical and early Romantic repertoire means that flautists today are constantly trying to prove that the instrument is as creative, meaningful and profound as solo instruments such as the violin or the clarinet (for her doctoral research, Noemi looked at the idea of redefining her instrument through newly created transcriptions of keyboard masterworks from the classical era).

For the last ten years, Gergely's focus has been on his conducting career and whilst he never entirely gave up the flute, he admits there was a moment when he had to 'ask the spiders to live somewhere else'. But when the pandemic hit in 2020 the couple had time together; Gergely admits that he was lucky and only really lost four months of work. But for that four months spent with Noemi and their two daughters, it seemed obvious to rediscover the joys of playing music together, and after all, Gergely didn't have an orchestra with which to make a sound.

Until conducting took over, Gergely was a serious flautist; he never wanted to believe that he dropped the instrument, and he always went back to it. But playing again with Noemi meant that he had to get his playing back onto a similar level as hers, and he worked a lot on his technique. During the various lockdowns, a lot of people looked back at their past lives and picked up threads that had been dropped. Noemi returned to the languages she has once been studying (French and Japanese). 

When lockdown started, Gergely and Noemi impulsively decided to put on a concert for their neighbours (they live in a London flat and people could sit on their balconies). Their elder daughter played the violin and the children made posters. It was a success, and people asked for more. The result was a second, more developed concert, with 60 to 70 people sitting outside. And they realised that playing together was something that they still enjoyed and needed to do. And ever since, they have continued playing together.

And having rediscovered the joy of playing the flute together, they thought it was important to have a professional record of what they had built, to capture the moment. As regards the repertoire on the disc, it is their repertoire and it brings a smile to people's faces. The music is technically complex, an effort to play together yet needs to sound effortless if people are to enjoy it. 

Regarding the lightness and sweetness of the music, Gergely uses the analogy of baklava. Recently the couple visited Istanbul (Noemi gave a masterclass at the Istanbul State Conservatory, Gergely was conducting the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic) and as it was half term, their daughters joined them too. They found a baklava shop that made the delicacy, not for tourists but locals, not too sugary, light and perfectly proportioned, the fruit of true craft and very enjoyable to eat. And he feels that the Dopplers' music is like that if you get it right. There is a way to play the Dopplers' music to bring out the craft in it and the lightness.

Gergely and Noemi have known each other since their teens and they have done a lot together including founding the Budapest Youth Symphony Orchestra (Gergely conducting and Noemi playing the flute in the orchestra), and founding a contemporary music festival. Eventually, Gergely decided that he wanted to focus on conducting, he studied it and worked on his technique. So they each focused on their individual careers. Noemi didn't want be simply be a conductor's partner, so developed her own career and her own goals and they tended to avoid working together, forging individual careers.

Going forward they feel that whilst each will continue to focus on their individual careers, it is nice to be able to do some things together each year, to work together in different ways. They admit that when they were young, they tended to compete with each other and when performing together the edges of the relationship could be a little rough. But each has found their musical personality and they have found balance both as a performing duo and as a married couple. And in normal times, they spend a lot of time apart because they spend a lot of time apart because of their busy travelling lifestyles. This means that when they do play together now, the moments are special and they make an effort. But they also know the trigger points, the routes not to take, and they can be adaptable now they know each other more and are better musicians. Gergely comments that whilst his technique needed some work when he returned to the flute, his musicality was more developed than when he was in his 20s and Noemi feels the same, she is on a different level both as a flautist and as an artist.

And even though they spend a lot of time apart, they follow each other's careers. Noemi has a busy recording schedule, with two more albums to come, and many of Gergely's concerts are now streamed online. This means that they can each listen to the other's work and discuss it, and because of this they have developed a deeper understanding of each other as an artist. It also helps that when they play together now, they have a shared body of knowledge and a shared background, which brings a different quality to the collaboration.

Even over Zoom across three locations (Gergely was at an airport and Noemi was at home in London), they were charming and lively company, making the interview great fun.

Noemi Gyori and Gergely Madaras (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)
Noemi Gyori and Gergely Madaras (Photo Benjamin Ealovega)

The pianist on the disc, Alexander Ullman, was known to them thanks to the Philip Loubser Foundation which supported Gergely's post as Mackerras Fellow at ENO, Noemi's PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, and Ullmann's time as Benjamin Britten Fellow at the Royal College of Music. They met him through the foundation and they got on (he evidently has a great sense of humour), and they felt he fitted the project well. 

Romantic and Virtuoso Music for Flutes and Piano - Works by Doppler and Kuhlau - Noemi Gyori, Gergely Madaras, Alexander Ullman - Rubicon Classics

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