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A Minute With: Hungarian violinist Kelemen - proud of Roma roots

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - Hungarian violinist Barnabas Kelemen has studied with the late virtuoso Isaac Stern and won Gramophone magazine's award for best chamber music CD of 2013, but what he is really proud of is his Roma heritage.

Kelemen, who was in London this week to accept the prestigious Gramophone award for his disc of Bartok violin sonatas and to appear with his wife Katalin Kokas in the Kelemen Quartet at Wigmore Hall on Sunday, credits his late Roma violinist grandfather as an inspirational figure in his life.

"I can play in the gypsy style and I love it," Kelemen, 35, told Reuters in an interview.

"It's very important artistically," he said, while noting that because of discrimination against the Roma community in Hungary and elsewhere in central Europe, "there are many examples of parents not talking about their background".

Kelemen, on the other hand, is proud that his grandfather Pali Pertis may well have been the model for French composer Maurice Ravel when he wrote his famous Roma-inspired, if not Roma-authentic, "Tzigane". It was commissioned by Hungarian violinist Jelly d'Aranyi and first performed by her in 1924.

"My grandfather was born in 1903 and as a very young prodigy, as a teenager, he travelled to Europe and it is not impossible that Ravel himself heard my grandfather in Paris."

Kokas, seated at the table during the interview, interjects to suggest that everyone knows this to be the case, but Kelemen, while not disagreeing, says: "It's not proven."

Here's what else he had to say about why the music of major Hungarian composers like Bartok and Kodaly is being played better than ever, why Hungarians may have an edge but aren't the only musicians who can play the pieces, and where his career is going from here.

Q: The Bartok violin sonatas for which you and pianist Zoltan Kocsis won the Gramophone chamber music prize are by no means new to disc, and in fact your mentor Isaac Stern recorded the first sonata back in 1951. What makes your version special?

A:: I have to tell you that the generation of Hungarian musicians working now and studying in the last 10 to 20 years, we were taught by fantastic masters who were educated by the generation of Bartok who drank this in like mother's milk. So for them it was rather new while for us it's natural but still very fresh. We speak a language that is unique and I am teaching a new generation of students already. So we are at a very lucky moment regarding Bartok and Kodaly's style.

Q: It's often said that Russian music is best played by Russians, Hungarian music by Hungarians, but is this the case?

A: I'm not one to say that Bartok can be played only by Hungarians but it is very important to Hungarians ... and you have to understand some of our music is going back to the ancient times, some of our folk tunes have relations to Chinese and Asian music and so it's really unique.

Q: With the Gramophone award, the Wigmore Hall recital and your appearance as soloist in the extremely demanding Penderecki Violin Concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in November, this seems to be your year, is that right?

A: It's not my job to say but I'm doing my work and practicing and trying to play the best I can while enjoying some nice things that are coming up. I have always been a person and a musician who enjoyed developing step by step in my concert career. I am never pushing and no one is ever pushing too much behind me.

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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