For a Prodigy, Life Is a Stage
The son of concert musicians, Hungarian-born TAMAS KOCSIS was destined to follow in his parents’ footsteps. His ascension as a classical violinist took him away from the Soviet-era Eastern Bloc and to the United States, where he furthered his music studies under the direction of prestigious instructors. Kocsis went on to land the concertmaster post at the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and, in 2004, joined the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in the same capacity. Kocsis, 37, is a frequent soloist in the OPO’s concert series. He also is a knight, a title bestowed upon him during a visit to his homeland in 2006. His recordings of the complete violin sonatas and piano quartets of Brahms are released under the EPR label.
When I got accepted at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, from that point on that was my life. My grandmother escorted me to and from the Academy when I was little, but at 11 I was on my own. I’d get on the bus and the subway and the tram by myself. My mom was too busy. She was already practicing 14 or 15 hours a day for her own concerts.
Both of my parents were musicians; my mother was a pianist and my dad was a violinist and they were both known artists. My mom was a pretty famous pianist and my dad had his own chamber orchestra in Cologne, Germany. They were focusing on their work most of the time, so growing up I was either on the road with them or sitting under my mom’s piano while she was practicing.
My parents had had a pretty tough life being on the road and being busy 24 hours a day, so they were not pushing me to become a musician. But at 5 years old I displayed interest, saying that I wanted to play the piano and wanted to play the violin, so I started to study both of them.
My parents got divorced when I was six and my mom married another violinist, who was the dean of the academy, when I was nine. After the divorce, my life didn’t change much. My dad stayed in Germany and my mother moved to Austria and would commute to Hungary to teach and perform. I’d stay in Budapest with my grandmother and go back and forth to Austria with my mother. Aside from having my parents in two locations, it didn’t really affect my daily routine. I didn’t get messed up.
Until I was 10, I was a normal kid. I played soccer in the summer and hockey in the winter and I practiced [music] an hour a day at first, then two, then three, but after I was accepted at the Academy my life was kind of turned upside down. I was the youngest kid there. I was a 10-year-old taking university classes.
The first four years in elementary school had been fine, but the next four years I had to have a private tutor because I had conflicts with schedules. From morning to noon you had to take classes, then afternoon was for practicing and private lessons and orchestra rehearsals. So I was usually practicing or studying or doing something.
Since I grew up around musicians, I knew it was very rare you’d make a lot of money, but I was doing something I liked. I even played with Mom on a radio show after I had been accepted at the academy. After that, she went to the other extreme to not play with me in public. Being on radio and TV all the time, she was a household name and she didn’t want people to think she was pushing me.
I’m not sure how much I made when I was younger; all I know is when I was 11 I started giving concerts and getting paid. I was probably considered more a child prodigy rather than a star.
Performing was a different situation under Communism. Here, an artist has management which promotes them and gets them concerts. In the Eastern Bloc countries, there was a difference. The state had its own big government-controlled management company that promoted its own artists and musicians and did their own concert scheduling for the entire state of Hungary and the Eastern Bloc.
It was good in the way that arts got funded from the state, and the arts were part of life there. Artists were treated like special people. Regular people would have to go to the government and ask for special permission to go abroad to, say, Austria or Germany. If the government approved, they’d get a stamp, but they were monitored when they left and when they came back. It was terrible.
My parents and I had privileges. We could go when we wanted because we were musicians. We were artists. I went out of the country quite often, since both parents lived abroad. I was making money by performing and I had my own account and could do what I wanted. Since I was not an adult, I didn’t get the regular fee, but when I was 16 I bought a Fiat—a 650cc, air-cooled, tiny thing made in Poland.
I was 18 when I finished school, and I wanted to study with someone who was really, really good—and the best teacher was in Bloomington, Indiana [Josef Gingold at Indiana University]. Coming to America was a culture shock.
The biggest shock was watching The Streets of San Francisco.I had watched that at home. Whatever government TV wanted to air, you’d watch, and it was all dubbed into Hungarian—The Streets of San Francisco, Dallas, Dynasty. . . . So the first time I heard Karl Malden and Michael Douglas speaking, I thought, “What happened to their voices?” When you hear the same actor dub their voices for 10 years, you get used to it.
So it was different, but I also went back to what I did in Hungary. I practiced violin, took music classes, entered competitions, played concerts—things didn’t really change except the scenery.
I got a free ride and a stipend, and I was a graduate assistant so I made money on the side. I spent four years there and majored in music. After that I wasn’t thinking of going home. I knew I was going to be a musician, but I didn’t want to be a soloist running around the world. I had lived that as a child back home, but I didn’t want to do it myself.
I went to New York for another few years and my instructor at Julliard, Dorothy DeLay, said they were going to have an audition for concertmaster for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra. A friend had dropped out of the competition, so I went and tried out and I became the concertmaster. That was in 1995.
I became concertmaster for the Orlando Philharmonic in 2004. Did I think I would be doing this when I started? No. Am I happy doing this? Yes.
Today I’ll teach students privately and some will say they don’t know what they want to do. They ask for advice and I don’t know what to say, because I was never in that situation. From Day One, this is what I knew I was going to do—and then I ended up doing it.