Were it not for the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Tamas Vasary would have made his conducting debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra long before tonight's All-Mozart Summerfest program. The Russian tanks that crushed his country's freedom fighters steered Vasary away from conducting and into a career as a pianist.
"I have wanted to conduct since my very first concert at the age bTC of 8," says Vasary, 62. "I played a Mozart concerto, but throughout the evening I imagined I was conducting everything!"
The prodigy went on to a brilliant career at the Budapest Academy of Music, winning the Liszt Prize as its most gifted pianist. Before he was 20, however, his major interest had become the podium. He got his first conducting assignment at the Budapest Opera at the tender age of 22.
"But as fate would have it, the next year was 1956, the year of the revolution, and conducting was put aside for years," he recalls.
Vasary's father, Josef, had been installed as vice premier of the newly democratic country. But with the failure of the revolution, the elder Vasary was imprisoned.
His son, however, was free to travel and won a top prize in the 1956 Brussels Competition. His playing so impressed the music-loving Elizabeth, queen of the Belgians, that she called the Russian Embassy, got his father released, and obtained the visas that enabled the family to settle in Switzerland.
"We were uprooted, life was difficult, and the piano was my best chance to succeed," Vasary says.
After Vasary and his family settled in Switzerland, his playing came to the attention of Madeleine Lipatti, who was reminded of her late husband, Dinu Lipatti. She introduced him to such influential musicians as the pianist Wilhelm Backhaus and the violinist Joseph Szigeti.
In 1957, Vasary began to make a series of acclaimed recordings of the music of Chopin and Liszt. In 1959, he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic; and in 1961 he toured the United States for the first time. He made a sensational debut in Liszt's E-flat Concerto with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra -- a collaboration that was to continue until Szell's death in 1970.
"It was around that time that the possibility of conducting re-emerged," says Vasary, now music director of England's Bournemouth Chamber Symphony and the Budapest Radio Symphony Orchestra.
"If I had stayed in Hungary, I might have remained in the pit of the opera house instead of traveling the world playing the piano," the conductor says. "You sometimes feel your dreams are being withheld from you; later, you understand those years were well spent."
Vasary was among the most gifted in a generation of pianists that included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Maurizio Pollini and Martha Argerich. His performances of Chopin and Liszt were remarkable for their spontaneity of rhythm, clarity of thought, musical control and technical finesse. And he was an equally adept interpreter of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. But some critics -- in the United States -- were slow to recognize Vasary's virtues in the Austro-German repertory.
"It was sometimes hard to break through because I was labeled a virtuoso and a Chopin-Liszt player," he says. "But I didn't care -- I just went on and did as I liked."
His Carnegie Hall debut in 1962 raised eyebrows by juxtaposing two of the longest, intellectually knotty works in the repertory: Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Beethoven's "Hammerklavier Sonata."
A few years later, another New York recital explored -- long before thematic programming was fashionable -- the idea of dreams in music: performances of fantasies by Mozart, Schubert, Chopin and Liszt. Vasary is a great believer in dreams and fantasies as the source of human creativity.
"I don't much believe in what is usually called musical talent, and I fear that many musicians create too much distance between themselves and their audiences," he says. "Everyone is a creator and has wonderful dreams and fantasies. If you can resonate to any great work of art, then you have it in you.
"But we strive too much for material goods and we are atrophying our imaginations. I see children who are like dry, old people. If you cannot have emotions, then everything is useless."
Vasary began to conduct soon after his marriage in the middle '60s, and then with increasing frequency after he and his wife moved to London in 1970. His first conducting engagements came, predictably, leading orchestras from the keyboard in Mozart concertos. -- something he will do twice with the BSO.
"There is sometimes a dissonance between the conductor and the orchestra because it is his job to control, and the orchestra unconsciously re- bels," he says. "But when I am playing as well as conducting, there is less resistance because I am also playing an instrument. Then the thing I cherish most can happen: We all listen to each other as equals, and this is the finest kind of music-making."
"I was once a piano racehorse," Vasary admits. "But it's a very big pressure -- your enemies hope you fail and your audience constantly expects something new -- and you can rob yourself of spontaneity. Conducting is so much more interesting because you're working with other people -- it's unpredictable and it's much less lonely."
But loneliness -- and not the kind associated with the piano -- is something with which Vasary has recently had to cope. Ildiko, his wife and traveling companion of 30 years, died of cancer last year.
"It's the first time that I've been alone, and I've been trying to do my best," he says. "We are somehow made in such a way that we can withstand anything. In looking back on your life, you understand that even suffering can make you strong."
What: All-Mozart Program: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Tamas Vasary conductor and piano
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall
Tickets: $11, $16, $27
Call: (410) 783-8000