Of János

It is remarkable how quickly memories fade when one leaves college. I have retained zero knowledge from my math and science GEs (not that I understood anything at the time), and the things I learned in a two-year intensive history sequence resurface only when they are completely irrelevant. What has remained intact is therefore all the more important, and I have found that, while I did acquire some of the knowledge and skills I use every day, what has truly shaped me as a student, musician, and individual has nothing to do with textbooks and theory worksheets. What has transformed me into my current self has everything to do with the people who took the time to share their knowledge, their experience, their relationship with the world — the teachers who took the time to teach.

Such a teacher was János Négyesy.

It is strange to say that in the past tense. János Négyesy was, but it’s not that he isn’t. János radiated life, and such a force does not simply cease to be. János approached the world with a fabulous combination of cynicism and optimism. His love of interesting people and fascinating things was contagious, and lent a perpetual sense of privilege to every interaction. To be fortunate enough to learn from such a figure in the context of a class was amazing, but nothing quite compares to hearing anecdotes of antics with John Cage over impromptu cappuccinos at the coffee cart… Except, of course, sharing a stage.

When a student is really ready, it does not take much to inspire. It does require a keen instinct for providing the right bit of information at just the right time. János never bothered with futilely pushing those who were not willing to learn, but he nurtured those who were ready, and gave them precisely what they needed when they needed it, whether it be musical direction or simply permission to trust one’s instincts. Under his direction, chamber groups were able to come together, the individuals truly listening to one another, and the results were lovely, regardless of the players’ individual skill.

Perhaps it was his very personality gave me the freedom to embrace a part of myself that had previously seemed entirely ridiculous. At my audition for his Chamber Ensembles course, János motioned for me to stop before my aria’s final cadenza, and my instinct was to hold up my hand and finish the thing. As soon as I left the stage, I felt awful about committing such a transgression, and went to the maestro to apologize. János looked at me and simply said, “No. This was good.” I cannot quite articulate how liberating these words were, but I can say that every interaction since has been another step toward artistic and personal honesty.

János never hesitated to make his opinions clear. When I did well, he told me so. When I didn’t… Suffice it to say that he has slammed a couple of doors in my face. He inspired in me an incredible respect; he made me want to better myself, to push myself to improve.

János surrounded himself with the beautiful, and was endlessly enthusiastic in his juxtaposition of the simple and the extraordinary. This is obvious in his paintings, and shone through every phrase he played. He endowed obscure contemporary compositions with not only great skill but also great passion, which gave each work greater accessibility. It was always a pleasure to attend his performances, which were a rare blend of inspiring and educational. Just to name one, János and Päivikki’s “Nono Project,” a staged performance of Nono’s last works, left me completely stupefied. After the concert, he just shrugged, put his arm around her, and went off — to them, it was just a normal evening.

There is simply no way to describe the love of János Négyesy and Päivikki Nykter without gross oversimplification. Onstage and off, they fit perfectly, sharing silences in a crowded room in a perfect understanding. Päivikki, I cannot begin to fathom this, or to express my sympathies. The weeks I spent working with you both made me an infinitely better musician; performing with you made me a better person. You taught me to look, to listen, to sing piano without a second thought.

For the past couple of days, the penultimate line of the piece we performed together has floated endlessly through my thoughts. “Oh! che il mio epitaffio, che il tuo sia: Pace!” I shan’t explain, but am attaching the concert program HERE; the video is below.

This has turned out to be an essay (another skill I didn’t learn in college), while I meant it as a posthumous thank-you note to a teacher, a mentor, a cappuccino buddy. János, I miss you pattering down the hallway with the latest cartoon pun. I miss driving to the coffee cart only to park the same distance away as it would have been to walk from the music building, realize that the cart isn’t even open, and debate whether going to the faculty club is even worth it before realizing that it’s time for rehearsal and driving all the way back. I miss the anecdotes and the lessons, the snide comments and the thinly veiled compliments. Thank you, maestro. Pace!

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