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FOR THE BUDAPEST GYPSY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA IT IS NATURAL TO PLAY WITHOUT SHEET MUSIC

A large family of Paganinis

WHEN Sándor Jároka, Hungary's most famous Roma soloist of the day, died in 1985, around 1,000 Hungarian Roma musicians gathered at his funeral. After the ceremony finished they began to play. This moment of improvisation inspired them to form the world's largest Roma orchestra - the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra.
Over the last 17 years, the 189-member orchestra has become famous across the globe. It holds around 100 concerts a year, and audiences often say it is like listening to 100 Paganinis. Because of the musicians' other commitments, the entire orchestra rarely plays together. Instead the orchestra performs with exactly 100 musicians in each concert.


WORLD'S largest Roma orchestra comes to Bratislava on November 12.
photo: Courtesy of Grafis Studio

WHEN Sándor Jároka, Hungary's most famous Roma soloist of the day, died in 1985, around 1,000 Hungarian Roma musicians gathered at his funeral. After the ceremony finished they began to play. This moment of improvisation inspired them to form the world's largest Roma orchestra - the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra.

Over the last 17 years, the 189-member orchestra has become famous across the globe. It holds around 100 concerts a year, and audiences often say it is like listening to 100 Paganinis. Because of the musicians' other commitments, the entire orchestra rarely plays together. Instead the orchestra performs with exactly 100 musicians in each concert.

Since 1996 they have performed in Slovakia every year, usually a month or so before Christmas. With every performance the number of local listeners increases and the Slovakia concert is always sold out.

"This proves that there is no [prejudice] against Roma or Hungarians here, contrary to what [head of the Real Slovak National Party, Ján] Slota likes to claim," says Rudolf Héger, manager of the concert in Slovakia.

This year, the Hungarian Roma will perform at the 2,000-seat Bratislava Pasienky sport hall on November 12. After their two-hour performance, which will include a couple of works by Slovak composers, they will host the famous Czech Roma singer Véra Bílá and her band Kale.

Even though the Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra - also called A Hundred Gypsy Violins - is the only Roma orchestra in the world that performs with 100 musicians on stage, it is not its size that makes it unique. It is the way the musicians perform and the instruments they play that distinguishes this from any other symphony orchestra.

"Everything they play, they play by heart, without sheet music," says Héger, adding that the musicians' instinctive feeling for unison creates a very natural harmonic sound.

"And no other orchestra plays as many stringed instruments as they do, including six dulcimers, which results in more dulcet tones," he continues.

According to the orchestra's president, Jószef Raduly, the reason the musicians play without sheet music is not because they cannot read the notes.

"The rehearsals are carried out in usual way; they learn to play the works from sheet music [as any other orchestra does] but it's part of their Roma tradition to perform without it."

The orchestra consists of more than 50 violinists, 10 viola players, 10 cellists, 11 double bassists, 9 clarinets and six dulcimer players. Its repertoire ranges from traditional Hungarian dances (czardas) and international Gypsy music to classical pieces.

They perform works by famous Hungarian and international Roma composers, such as Monti, Ferraris and Lázslo Berki (the orchestra's founder and former leader), as well as music by well-known classical composers, including Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Johann Strauss and Aram Khatchaturian.

Each one of the orchestra's musicians is a master of his or her instrument. However, it is widely accepted that the dulcimer virtuoso Oszkár Ökrös, who performs a solo at almost every concert, is the most outstanding member of the orchestra.

"He is the best player of this instrument in the world," says Raduly.

While the orchestra has a regular leader, currently Jószef Lendvai Csócsi, the group's conductor changes with nearly every performance.

The founder of the orchestra, Lászlo Berki, was its leader until his tragic death in 1997. As a composer and the conductor of the National Hungarian State Ensemble, it was he who wrote most of the arrangements for the orchestra and invited Hungary's best musicians to become members.

Berki's funeral marked the second time in Hungarian Roma history that over 1,000 musicians gathered to pay their respects to a musical genius.

What: Budapest Gypsy Symphony Orchestra - classical concert.
Where: Športová hala Pasienky (Sport Hall Pasienky), Trnavská cesta 29.
When: Nov 12 at 19:00
Tickets: Sk400.
Tel: 02/4437-1633.

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