The Rajkó Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra gave a concert last Friday evening at Crystal Theatre in Norwalk, and I don't know when a group of performers and an entire audience had more fun.

Sponsored by the William Penn Association, the major Hungarian fraternal society in the United States, one purpose of which is to promote and preserve Hungarian culture in this country. This orchestra is touring all over the the country at this time, and gratefully, Norwalk was on their schedule.

It happened to be the 200th anniversary of Hungarian-born composer Ferenc Liszt, better known to us as Franz List, and the first half of the program was dedicated to him. The second half was a knockout program of Gypsy music, also known as Roma along with pieces by Khachaturian, the Johann Strauss family, and Rossini, among others, with fiery examples of Csárdás and something new to me, Verbunk. The former is a familiar dance form, famous in opera and operetta. The latter was originally a "recruiting dance" to demonstrate to young men what fun it would be to join the army! It met with surprisingly success, historically.

The most unusual instrument on the stage was a beautiful 100-year old cimbalom, a stringed instrument played with soft hammers which looks and sound something like a zither or a hammer dulcimer, only different and more melodic. It and its player blazed throughout the evening. Two of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodys, No. 2, the most familiar and No. 14 were played, but you've never heard them like this. They contain musical ideas of czárdás and verbunk, but Liszt's genius made the two pieces even more exciting. Brahms, who loved the gypsy music and dance forms of Hungary, was represented by his familiar Hungarian Dance No.5. All the other pieces were by Hungarian composers, and Edy Remenyi's beautiful "Fly, My Swallow," was a study in virtuostic playing on everyone's part. In the second half, the orchestra added a few requests, something they do at all their concerts. Hungary was once half of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Viennese composers of the time took advantage of the wealth of musical ideas in waltzes and love songs. In that half, we also heard the "William Tell Overture," the "Ritual Fire Dance," and other music that had feet tapping and a little humming, here and there.

The ensemble consisted of five violinists, a violist, a clarinetist and a bass viol player. The cimbalom was played by a guest artist, Sándor Kuti, whose hands almost seemed to blur as he produced music ranging from lyrical to wildfire. The conductor was violinist Lőrinc Danyi, but each player had a solo opportunity to display his ability. They were Gyula Feher, Mata Tamás, and József Toldi. The clarinetist was Antal Suki, and you will not hear that kind of virtuostic playing often! The bass viol player, Gábor Matyi, was tireless, never rested for an instant, and supported the ensemble the entire time, whether full orchestra, solos or small ensemble with great skill, and dark sound. The unsung hero, the violist, Benedek Suki, was equally effective in everything he did. There was one example of what I can only call Transylvanian Jazz, and some funny comedic hi-jinks, which enhanced the light-heartedness of the evening. By the way, they used no printed music!

Adding authentic atmosphere, a series of photographs of the country, views of cities, castles, and rolling green mountains and valleys, were projected on the stage screen during the music, giving us a chance to see something of how beautiful Hungary is.

More Information

Fact box

I could go on for several pages about this concert. As well as a wonder-working performance on the part of the orchestra, it was a joyous demonstration of the musical spirit and soul of an entire people, one we do not, alas, often enough any more.