Arpad Joo

The Wunderkind Director

Many eyebrows and questions were raised when the Knoxville Symphony Society announced that it had hired a 25-year-old conductor for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. After interviewing one hundred applicants, they settled on a musical wunderkind from Budapest named Arpad Joó (pronounced “yeo”). When Mr. Joó guest-conducted the orchestra in spring 1973, his youth and inexperience were totally eclipsed by his musical dedication and podium presence. He projected such talent, energy, intensity, and musicianship that the members of the orchestra were won over immediately.

His ability with the orchestra and obvious commitment to music lent credence to the recommendations given by the faculty of the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, perhaps this nation’s leading music school at a public university.  He was indeed “a most outstanding talent.” Hired for the KSO’s 1973-74 season, Mr. Joó accepted his first post as a full-time orchestra conductor and took on the task entrusted to him by the Society: that of making the KSO a solid semiprofessional organization. It was a job for which Mr. Joó was well-prepared by his talents, training and personality, and he managed it successfully.

Arpad Joó was born into a musical family in Budapest in 1948. His mother was a concert pianist, and the younger Joó decided to study piano as well. At age nine, he made his debut in a piano recital at the Academy of Music in Budapest. He continued his studies at the Béla Bartók Conservatory of Music and the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, both in Budapest, where he was a private pupil of Zoltán Kodály.

His talents brought him international recognition and he was awarded many prizes. During his teens, he won the Bartók-Liszt Competition in Budapest (1962) and the prize of the Festival de Montreux (1965), where critics hailed him as “a poet whose inspiration is limitless.” In 1967 Joó was awarded a scholarship to The Juilliard School. Two years later, he won the International Franz Liszt Piano Competition in Boston, which earned him a scholarship to Indiana University. There he was praised as one of the finest young conductors to complete graduate studies. As a student, he built up an impressive repertoire of more than 25 major orchestral works and operas.

Mr. Joó arrived in Knoxville with the tenacious attitude of a young man in the prime of his career. He set forth to reorganize the orchestra by holding the first set of open auditions. Mr. Joó recalled that he “auditioned everybody.” Each member of the 65-piece orchestra had to demonstrate his or her musical competence in order to establish the right to remain. Mr. Joó’s reputation was so compelling that 138 local musicians auditioned for the privilege of playing under his direction. He rehired selectively, and he did not accept marginal players. To encourage professionalism, the orchestra paid all of its members, some for the first time.

Concerts given under Mr. Joó’s direction were well received. He expanded the orchestra’s repertoire, and through his personal contacts, he was able to bring in such world-class guest artists as Lili Kraus, Janos Starker, Andras Kiss, and Mack McCray (twice) to perform with the KSO.  Knoxvillians were also impressed with the conductor’s performances as piano soloist in both of Liszt’s piano concertos (the Second Concerto on at least four occasions), the Concertino by Morton Gould, and Liszt’s Totentanz. To foster musical talent among the young people of the community, the Symphony League formed the Knoxville Youth Orchestra with Mr. Joó’s assistance in 1973. The youth orchestra was to be a training ground, providing high school-age students with the opportunity to play with a symphony. Dr. James Marable, a cellist in the KSO for a number of years, was its first conductor; he and his wife, Barbara, a violinist, were central to the success of this venture. At that time, Mr. Joó, recognizing the KSO’s progressive need for an assistant conductor, installed Dr. Marable in that post as well.

To promote the enjoyment of symphonic music among a broader audience, another educational project was developed during this period: lecture-demonstrations that were given in elementary schools. For many students, this was a first opportunity to see and touch symphonic instruments and to hear concert music. They learned that there was an appealing middle ground between “fiddling” and “longhaired music.”

Mr. Joó celebrated the 1976 American bicentennial by becoming a naturalized citizen and by conducting the KSO in a “Bicentennial Pops Concert” on March 11, 1976, as part of the orchestra’s subscription season. All six works on the program were by American composers: Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Ferde Grofé, George Gershwin and David Van Vactor. Mr. Van Vactor’s Symphony No. 5 was given its world premiere. Commissioned by the Tennessee Arts Commission, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, this orchestral work took as its inspiration the story of Mr. Van Vactor’s ancestors who had fought in the Revolutionary War.  A performance of this symphony was videotaped and televised nationally by PBS.

Under Mr. Joó’s direction, the KSO grew rapidly in musical quality. And as the orchestra’s proficiency rose to meet its conductor’s expectations, the financial support of the community grew as well. Having led the orchestra through five significant years in its development, Mr. Joó felt the need to seek other challenges. He left after the 1977-78 season at a peak in the orchestra’s growth, being hired away by the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, but not before he assisted the society in finding his successor.

Mr. Joó contributed greatly to the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and he was determined to leave it in competent hands. The man he recommended to further the orchestra’s development was his friend, colleague and fellow countryman, Zoltán Rozsnyai, who had guest-conducted the KSO on two occasions during Mr. Joó’s tenure. Mr. Joó returned to guest-conduct the KSO on two occasions: on March 15, 1979, and again to open the 50th anniversary season on October 18 and 19, 1984.  In 1998, he founded and acted as principal conductor of the Budapest-based European Symphony Orchestra. After suffering from heart problems, Mr. Joó passed away on July 5, 2014, while living in Singapore.

This chapter, Arpad Joó: The Wunderkind Director, is substantially reprinted from Fifty Years of the KSO: A Legacy of Symphonic Excellence published in 1984. Edited and revised by Rudy Ennis. © 1984 and 2010 Knoxville Symphony Society. All rights reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without written consent from the Knoxville Symphony Society, 100 S. Gay Street, Suite 302, Knoxville, Tennessee 37902.