Zoltan Rozsnyai

Orchestrating New Growth For The KSO

Zoltán Rozsnyai was chosen in 1978 as the conductor and music director who could best prepare the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra for the increased international attention it would garner as host orchestra for the 1982 World’s Fair.  Mr. Rozsnyai’s credentials were indeed impressive. He brought to Knoxville the talents of a seasoned musician whose international experience in conducting and developing orchestras spanned three decades.

Mr. Rozsnyai was born in 1926 into a musical family in Budapest, where both parents played the piano and his mother sang opera; his early childhood memories are permeated with music. Blessed with perfect pitch, an excellent memory, and a consuming love of music, he absorbed all his parents taught him. He made his piano debut at age five (playing Schumann’s “March of the Lead Soldier”) and began his professional career as a concert pianist when he was ten. He was molded by such musical mentors as Zoltán Kodály, Béla Bartók, and Ernő Dohnányi. During his teens, Mr. Rozsnyai studied the fine arts, but his interest in the sciences was also strong. He studied electrical engineering and ham radio operation and earned a pilot’s license at age 17. At age 24 he became the youngest music director ever appointed to lead the Debrecen Opera, Hungary’s second-largest opera company.  In 1954, he was made conductor of the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra. Mr. Rozsnyai won a prize at the International Conductor’s Competition in Rome in May 1956. He fortuitously left Hungary, as did many of his countrymen, the same year when the political situation became dangerously unstable with the appearance of Soviet troops and tanks in Budapest. Settling in Vienna, he founded the Philharmonia Hungarica, an orchestra that included the very best musicians from among the hundreds in exile there from their Hungarian homeland. During the next two years, the Philharmonia Hungarica toured Europe, the United States and Canada.  One of the 33 American cities to applaud this orchestra was Knoxville.

In a rare demonstration of Cold War respect, Mr. Rozsnyai received Hungary’s Cultural Merit Star award, plus the coveted Hungarian Golden Cross, honoring him for his cultural achievements associated with the formation and touring of the Philharmonia Hungarica. West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt personally awarded him the Peace Bell of Berlin in 1958.

Mr. Rozsnyai became a New York resident in 1961 and a citizen of the United States in 1967. In this country, he served as assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein and as music director of symphony orchestras in Utica, Cleveland, and San Diego. His repertoire included an impressive array of contemporary works, many of them by American composers. He was very much an international figure in the world of music, and he had guest-conducted, recorded, and filmed with the world’s top orchestras. He was equally at home with the operatic (300 performances) and symphonic repertoires; and, he was a composer with over 40 orchestral compositions and film scores.

When Mr. Rozsnyai came to direct the KSO in preparation for the worldwide spotlight that would soon shine upon it, he approached the challenge from several angles. Through his encouragement, a core of 16 full-time professional string players was hired in 1981. The presence of this core accounted for a dramatic artistic advance and explosive increase in the number and kinds of services provided to the community by the KSO.  Mr. Rozsnyai set about to improve the technical proficiency of the initial string core players with, in his words, a “regular diet of technically difficult pieces from the German repertoire of Haydn, Handel, and Mozart, which demand disciplined playing from each player.” Since the strings make up two-thirds of the total orchestra, the quality of the string playing largely determines the quality of an orchestra. As Maestro Rozsnyai said, “[t]he collective education of the strings is essential to make each player play his best.”

An overriding goal for Mr. Rozsnyai was to keep the orchestra well-balanced in tuning and power. “If the members of the orchestra can hear each other,” he said, “they can play together and play in tune.”  Because of acoustical problems then experienced in the orchestra’s rehearsal and performance venue, Knoxville Civic Auditorium, one section could not always hear the others. The sound spectrum varied not only from one side of the stage to the other but also from the podium to various points in the auditorium. Early on in Mr. Rozsnyai’s tenure, acoustical ceilings and radiator clouds were placed in the auditorium, but after a while, it was obvious that acoustical improvements would only come with a change in venue.

In summer 1979, Mr. Rozsnyai almost single-handedly pulled together the Knoxville Chamber Orchestra, later called the Knoxville Symphony Chamber Orchestra, by convincing a number of KSO musicians and a few others (including David Van Vactor recruited as a flutist) – 34 in all – to perform without compensation a concert from the chamber orchestra repertoire on July 21, 1979, at First Christian Church on Fifth Avenue at which no admission was charged. It was a revelation. The performance was acoustically stunning and, at last, a Knoxville audience was able to hear just how good the KSO’s musicians had really become. With the 16-member professional core added in 1981, the orchestra’s five-concert Chamber Classics series was inaugurated by the Society for the 1981-82 season at the acoustically superior Tennessee Theatre and then moved in 1983-84 to the more intimate Bijou Theatre where it remains today. The ready-made solution of an acoustically suitable venue for the KSO was now obvious; however, it was not until the 1985-86 season, following Mr. Rozsnyai’s tenure, that the orchestra was able to effect a move of its Masterworks series to the Tennessee Theatre. Anticipating this advancement to the slightly smaller-capacity venue, the orchestra began presenting its Masterworks subscription series in pairs for the 1983-84 season and continues to do so to the present day.

The orchestra had prepared well for the exciting opportunities presented to the KSO by the 1982 World’s Fair. It presented a dozen concerts that summer for both local audiences and visitors from around the globe. Six pops concerts performed at the Tennessee State Amphitheater on the fair site featured such popular performers as Peter Nero, Skitch Henderson, and Roberta Peters. Tennessee’s talented Governor (now U.S. Senator), Lamar Alexander, played the piano in concert with the KSO at the fair. Classical performances at the amphitheater included concerts with pianist Andre-Michel Schub, 1981 winner of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and baritone John Cimino. Other KSO classical concerts at Knoxville Civic Auditorium during the World’s Fair featured renowned soloists Leonard Rose (cellist) and Isaac Stern (violinist).  Audiences were also treated to a marvelous international concert series on which appeared the London Symphony Orchestra and other major orchestras from Vienna, Prague, and Warsaw.

The musical education of area schoolchildren also received considerable emphasis during Mr. Rozsnyai’s term. This is due in part to the influence of his mentor, Zoltán Kodály, and to the precedent set by David Van Vactor, both of whom were adamant about the importance of music in the development of every child. The presence of the 16 full-time core members of the KSO made it possible to implement this philosophy to an unprecedented degree.  String quartets and more of the core musicians in 1983-84 presented lecture-demonstration programs in more than 65 area schools, plus educational presentations in Gatlinburg, Newport, and Oneida.  More than 10,000 fourth- through sixth-grade children attended the six Knoxville Symphony Young People’s Concerts offered in 1983-84.

The KSO’s 50th anniversary season in 1984-85 was not only a reflection on the orchestra’s growth and accomplishments. It also transitioned the Society, its orchestra, board, and audience to a new era as they auditioned in-concert five finalists, one of whom was to be selected as Mr. Rozsnyai’s successor. He resigned for much the same reason as he was hired by the KSO in 1978. A well-known and effective orchestra-builder, Mr. Rozsnyai accepted the challenge to assemble a first-rate orchestra of musicians from around the world to be known as the United States International University Orchestra based on the Scripps Ranch campus of International University at San Diego, California. In the celebratory fervor that marked his final season as the KSO’s fifth conductor, Maestro Rozsnyai left a tantalizing reminder of his keyboard prowess by performing Bach’s D-Minor Concerto, BWV 1052, on two programs, the February Masterworks series concerts on piano and the March Chamber Classics series concert two weeks later on harpsichord, each performance with particularly bravura, but quite different, improvised first-movement cadenzas.

Upon his return to San Diego (he was music director and conductor of the San Diego Symphony Orchestra from 1967 to 1971), Mr. Rozsnyai quickly came to lead the United States International University Orchestra to extraordinary acclaim in both the United States and Mexico before his unexpected death in 1990 at age 64. Before that fateful end, however, he returned to guest-conduct the KSO on three occasions: a sold-out Chamber Classics concert principally of music by Antonio Vivaldi on January 11, 1986, with guitarist Benjamin Bolt; a Masterworks series program just two months later, March 13 and 14, 1986; and January 15 and 16, 1987 on a Masterworks program featuring, again, a guitar soloist, Angel Romero.

This chapter, Zoltán Rozsnyai: Orchestrating New Growth for the KSO, 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.