By Michael Roddy
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - The Liszt Academy music school founded by Franz Liszt, the first piano superstar, reopens its main concert hall on Tuesday refurbished under an ambitious plan to give the 138-year-old institution, and its music study program, a new lease on life.
One of the world's cherished concert venues, where audience and performers alike praise the acoustics and say the spirit of musicians past seems to seep through the walls, the "Large Hall" in Budapest has been painstakingly restored during a four-year closure to its early 20th-century Art Deco style.
"The starting point was that this building is more than 100 years old and had never been renovated," said rector Andras Batta, 60, who will cede his post November 1 to harpist Andrea Vigh.
"Practice rooms were shabby, heating was bad, there was no air conditioning, there were a lot of problems so I thought with such great music and immense possibilities we must grow, we must develop it as one of the 21st century's great concert halls."
Liszt was a renowned virtuoso pianist and one of the 19th century's great classical composers.
The reopening, on Liszt's birthday, will feature a gala concert attended by heads of music institutions from around the world and include remarks by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The reconstruction of the 1907 hall, where such greats as pianist Sviatoslav Richter, violinist Yehudi Menuhin and conductor Leonard Bernstein performed, is distinguished by ebony-hued wood paneling laced with white geometric decoration. It replaces a drab brown coating dating from communist times.
A new chamber opera house is named for the late Jewish conductor Sir Georg Solti, who fled Nazi-allied Hungary before World War Two. New "green rooms" for soloists and modern catering facilities are part of the 40-million-euro ($54.7 million) overhaul.
The 800-plus students who used to take their classes at the building housing the concert hall have been accommodated at a new building a few blocks away, named for the late Hungarian avant-garde composer Gyorgy Ligeti.
While the older building has been a hive of construction work, the new one resounds to the glorious din of students playing in practice rooms. It lacks the storied atmosphere of the old, but for some students that is a plus.
"A lot of students were very happy when this building opened," Anasztazia Razvalyaeva, 27, a native Russian who is now a pupil of Vigh's, said while showing a visitor around.
"They said, 'At last, it feels like a real music academy, and not like such a place of mystery'."
That "place of mystery" looms large, however, in the Hungarian government's plans to push Budapest up the league tables of European cities with a reputation for music-making.
"SILICON VALLEY" OF MUSIC
The makeover of the famous building located on Franz Liszt Square in the heart of Budapest was financed 90 percent with European Union funds and 10 percent by the Hungarian government, which hopes to use the refurbished hall as a marketing tool for luring tourists to Budapest as a "music capital", Batta said.
"I had this idea 10 years ago that we could be the 'Silicon Valley' of music because there are so many good musicians and concert halls and we should make an image, a concert branding, with music," he told Reuters in an interview.
The academy, launched in 1875 with five professors and 38 students in Liszt's apartment, has a faculty of 168 today and is being split into two legal entities, the Liszt Academy and the Liszt Academy Concert Centre, each with its own logo.
It is an ambitious gamble, especially taking into account that with the academy's big hall reopening, Budapest, a city of some 2 million people, will have six mainstream concert, opera or music venues. If they are not competing for the same performers, they will be competing for the concert-going public.
The job of filling the 1,100-seat hall, plus 300 seats in the Solti opera house, has fallen to cultural director Andras Csonka.
Despite limited resources, he has lined up American septuagenarian cult figure Steve Reich in November, violinist Isabelle Faust a month later and violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Stephen Isserlis to play chamber music next year.
Csonka, who came to the academy from the larger Palace of Arts hall on the banks of the Danube River, thinks the concert-going public, local and visitors, is big enough to go around.
"We like not to compete but to cooperate," he said. "It is the only way to survive."
For music academy alumni, it is essential that the institution survive and build on traditions that have given it pride of place in Hungary's distinguished musical culture.
"This building has been renovated so beautifully, so carefully, I can't wait to see it in its original shine," said violinist Barnabas Kelemen, who will play at the gala. ($1 = 0.7312 euros)
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)