NACO at 50: Karoly Szilady’s journey full of musical memories

Karoly Sziladi is one of two members of NACO who has spent 50 years with the orchestra. Here he is in 1979. Photo: Fernand Leclair, National Arts Centre

Karoly Sziladi’s mother once gave him some very good advice. 

“She said, ‘My son, go and get a nice, soft government job in Ottawa’.”

Being dutiful, he followed her advice and he has never regretted it.

That nice government job is as a violinist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Sziladi joined NACO in 1969 when it debuted and he has been in the violin section ever since. 

As the orchestra celebrates 50 years of performances with two concerts this week on Sept. 30 and Oct. 3, Sziladi is one of two members who have been with NACO for its entire history. And he has no intention of stopping anytime soon. The other long serving member of the orchestra is another violinist, Elaine Klimasko.

But Sziladi’s road to 1 Elgin St. is a true journey. He was born in a suburb of Budapest, Hungary. Nearby his family home was the house of the composer Bela Bartok. Sziladi remembers playing in the house as a youngster  with his sister Gisella.

“My father was a machinist but he loved music. My mother insisted I do something other than being a machine operator or a lathe operator. So she took me to a teacher for a year” when he was about five, he said.

For Karoly Sziladi, NACO has been his music home for half a century and there’s no sign he’s stopping any time soon. Photo: Peter Robb

Sziladi didn’t start with the violin however.

“My mother took me hand in hand and we walked about a kilometre to the teacher’s house and I was singing for a while year.”

He credits that voice training with helping him form a good ear for music. The teacher told his mother “he would make an artist out of this young man.”

The teacher was Béla Lukás who was an assistant conductor at the Budapest Opera House before the Second World War. 

About a year later, Sziladi got a violin in his hands. He says he doesn’t know why his teacher gave him that instrument, but it has meant everything in his life. 

Meanwhile history was happening in Hungary. In 1956, the first real uprising against Soviet control over Eastern Europe erupted. At first the rebels prevailed but near the end of the year the Russians invaded with tanks and crushed the uprising.

In the Sziladi household, Karoly’s father was part of the rebellion. 

“My dad used to go into downtown Budapest with a Russian submachine-gun hiding under his rain coat.” He says he knew how to make Molotov cocktails but his mother said, ‘”You stay home and practice the violin’.”

All the action was downtown in Budapest and he did go there for a lesson or two when the fighting died down. What he saw was unbelievable — buildings knocked down and the destruction of war.

His father told him later that the Soviets had no mercy.

Before the end of the uprising, the Sziladis fled Hungary.

“If we had waited even a few more days the frontier with Austria would have been mined and we wouldn’t have made it out.” 

They walked across the border late at night, crossing near Eisenstadt where Joseph Haydn had once lived and worked for his patron at the Esterhazy palace.

“We stayed one day in a school there and I got my first banana and orange. I had never seen them before. My father had always said, if there ever was a chance to leave and find another life, he figured, with his trade, he could go wherever he wanted to go.”

The family was flown to Bath, in England, where they stayed for a short while at a converted former army barracks. 

“My Mother couldn’t stand the weather” so they didn’t want to stay in Britain. Soon they heard that Canada was taking Hungarian refugees and they boarded a plane and flew across the Atlantic eventually landing in Toronto where they were told that Kingston, Ontario was interested in taking three families. One of them was the Sziladis. 

His parents settled in Kingston. Eventually he graduated from Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute (KCVI) and then went to the University of Toronto on a music scholarship. 

His early days in Kingston were “interesting,” he said.

“I found everything so different when I came to Canada. I don’t mean just the language I mean from the buildings to the way people lived, what they did, what they ate and  what they learned in school. It was really for us the new world.”

At U of T, he picked up some work with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and used to make the drive down the Queen Elizabeth Way in a big Buick owned by a supportive and “wonderful old Jewish couple.”

He also spent three summers with the National Youth Orchestra in the early ’60s, something his son Karoly Jr. would do a few decades later.

By 1969 he was working at the Royal College of Music in Hamilton along with the Hamilton Phil.

That’s when a former teacher at U of T mentioned that a “first class orchestra was being put together in Ottawa” and that he should apply.

It wasn’t an easy decision because it was a risk. But he decided to take a chance. He made an audition tape on a reel-to-reel recorder and shipped the tape off to England where Mario Bernardi, who was conducting the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra, was living at the time. Bernardi was assembling what would become the NAC orchestra.

The music gods were smiling on Sziladi because, based on that tape, he got a letter saying that he had been accepted into NACO. But then there was a second round of auditions to place the players as first or second violins.

That audition happened in Ottawa and was accompanied by Evelyn Greenberg. 

Sziladi met Mario Bernardi at that audition.

“He was truly the right person at that time in this country to make an orchestra from scratch. You had the best material there was.” 

Bernardi, Sziladi said, showed his talent right away. He also showed something else. 

“You could tell from his arm movements that he was pretty strict, a true taskmaster. He could be mean and that was scary. We were doing mostly Classical era music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven because the orchestra was 45 players.

“The playing had to be precise.”

Even so, Sziladi said, “it was a wonderful job and a beautiful place to play.”

He got married two years later to Judith who had lived a few houses down back in Budapest. 

“I made sure I had a car that was paid for, some sort of bank account and a job.”

It hasn’t always been the smoothest ride, he said, still there have been many highlights over the past 50 years.

“Some of the biggest for me were the recordings we have done. The very first was with Maureen Forrester.” Another important record was with Frederica Von StadeAnd he also mentioned the last recording under Bernardi which was of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. He has collected every recording NACO has made.

Of course, there were important tours. The very first, in 1973, was a massive five week trek across Europe from Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Moscow, to Poland, England France and Italy.

“We lived out of a suitcase. We were doing Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony even in a concert where his widow was sitting in the front row. We all froze to death when we heard that.

“When I lived in Hungary, never would I have thought I would actually be playing in an elite orchestra in places like that.”

There were low points, especially in the early 1990s when the orchestra was on strike for several weeks.

“We had a terrible strike that I don’t wish would happen to any orchestra.”

The hiring of Pinchas Zukerman brought the orchestra out of its funk.

“He put on a different face for the orchestra. He is not only a great musician, he is inspiring. He is a living legend. He also realized we should venture into different eras of music and that meant getting bigger. He brought that.

“With Alexander Shelley, I am always surprised how patient he is with modern works and line by line, note by note.”

NACO in 1969. Photo: Fred Cattroll

He also misses the annual summer opera festival that Bernardi started.

“He interpreted and staged the Mozart Operas to packed houses. He was conducting and also sat and played the harpsichord. He was like a machine.”

He believes opera in Ottawa in the summer is a must.

“We have this magnificent place here and we don’t make use of it. It should be swarming with thousands of people. Here we are in the capital of Canada and we don’t have an opera company.”

NACO even took its opera expertise on the road. He recalled two opera performances in the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C.

“I miss also our Carnegie Hall appearances. We used to do those fairly regularly. I feel that orchestras that want to be recognized globally have to appear in places like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Centre.

“When we were told we would play Carnegie Hall we were never more excited.”

Sziladi has diversified his musical avocation.

He has played with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra in the past. And he even would make the two-hour drive in a ’63 Chevy to Deep River to play and teach. And he played with Thirteen Strings for years.

Sziladi is an active teacher and has been for many years. He has a massive collection of sheet music for the violin in his basement music room. He started his music library as a teenager.

He doesn’t have a computer.

“My computer is my head. I know about 90 per cent of the music that he has in his cabinets.”

He taught his son and daughter music and now he is teaching his 12 year old granddaughter.

She visits him after school “and we go over her orchestra parts. She loves it, but I have to be very careful. I can’t raise my voice, can’t make her practice too much otherwise I’ll hear about it.”

Sziladi believes teaching matters.

“Music is an art that needs to be passed down to the next generation. We have to nurture and guide them otherwise what kind of future will there be for classical music. I want my granddaughter to know about Bach. She loves Vivaldi. She is reading about him.”

As for his musical preference: The Classical era is still his era. For Sziladi, Bach is the basis of everything.

“One day I’ll say it’s done, but as long as my brain works and I can play” he will. “I would be bored stiff at home.”

In Town: You can meet and listen to Karoly Sziladi and Elaine Klimasko in a panel discussion Reflections and Memories in the NAC on Oct. 3 at 1:15 p.m. For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.