Hungarian music has audience dancing in the aisles

International supergroup Glass House Orchestra performs Hungarian Jewish music at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington.
Photo by Josh Marks

Hungarian music can get even the most staid audience out of their seats, stomping their feet, clapping their hands and nodding their heads in joyous celebration. It took a while to warm up the crowd at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue last Thursday evening, but eventually people were dancing in the aisles as if they were transported to Transylvania.

Jewish-Hungarian supergroup Glass House Orchestra and Hungarian folk group ensemble Muzsikás brought their unique blend of Hungarian musical traditions to Chinatown as part of Pop Up Budapest, a series of events in June, mostly in New York City, to promote the culture of Hungary’s capital city. Pop Up Budapest is presented by Balassi Institute — Hungarian Cultural Center of New York.

Glass House Orchestra first took the stage, and with eight musicians, needed every inch of the space.

Led by Grammy Award winner American trumpeter and composer Frank London, the project, initiated by the Balassi Institute to honor the victims of the Holocaust in Hungary, explores the rich Jewish musical legacy of Hungary. The name Glass House (Üvegház in Hungarian) comes from a Budapest safe house used by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz that protected thousands of Jews from the Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross Party fascists.

Besides London on trumpet, Glass House features Béla Ágoston on winds, Pablo Aslan on bass, Aram Bajakian on guitar, Szirtes Edina Mókus on violin and vocals, Miklós Lukács on cimbolom, Jake Shulman-Ment on violin and Israeli-born Yonadav Halevi on percussion.

All eyes were transfixed on Mókus, the female lead singer who belted out music from Hungary’s pre-war Jewish community. The crowd was also impressed by Bajakian’s guitar solos that added a rock ‘n’ roll edginess to the music.

Established in 1973, Muzsikás has done more to bring Hungarian folk music to the world than any other group. Its repertoire includes Jewish instrumental music from the Maramaros region of northern Transylvania. Violinist Mihály Sipos gave a virtuoso performance and he was joined by his multi-instrumentalist bandmates Dániel Hamar, Farkas Zoltán (Batyu), who replaced László Porteleki for the tour, and Péter Éri.

At one point, Hamar and Zoltán took out an odd instrument that likely many in the audience had never seen. The ütőgardon, or gardon, a folk musical instrument from Transylvania, looks like a cello but is played like a drum. The strings are plucked and played with a stick. It brought a surreal and exotic quality to the music that the audience appreciated.

The highlight of the evening was a guest performance from folk singer and dancer Ágnes Herczku, who paid a moving tribute to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Hungary with a stirring rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu” followed by “Szól a kakas már” (Already the Rooster Crows), a well-known song written by Hasidic Rabbi Itzhak Isaac Taub of Kalev, also known as Nagykálló.

The concert was a moving memorial to what was lost with the destruction of Hungary’s Jewish communities during World War II. But it was also a powerful reminder that Hungary’s rich Jewish musical heritage lives on.

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