The first thing I learned about Budapest is that it’s actually Buda and Pest, two very different areas separated by the Danube. We stayed on the Buda side, which is quieter and more residential. It is home to the stunning Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, accessible by a lot of stairs, but there wasn’t much else touristy on the Buda side that we had time to visit. On the Pest side is where all the action was, including our concert venue. There are baths, the Central Market Hall, Parliament, the opera house, and pretty much all the good food.

I spent my first morning up on the hill checking out Fisherman’s Bastion and the Buda Castle, which is undergoing some renovations. The neighborhood on the top of the hill is old and charming, and affords an incredible view of Budapest. That afternoon we went to Amadinda’s studio to rehearse Lukas Ligeti’s new piece for the first time. On the way, our host Eszter tried to help us learn to pronounce all their names: Zoltán (pretty easy to pronounce, and two of them are named Zoltán), Karolyi (a little harder), and Aurél (hopeless). One of the Zoltáns speaks very good English, so he was their spokesperson. They are all characters, but English-speaking Zoltán is truly larger than life. He wears this fantastic Turkish hat, which he says strangers have stopped him and offered him money for, and he drives a 23-year-old Saab with a vanity plate that reads JMC 433. Get it? John Milton Cage 4:33. One afternoon he drove us back to the hotel after rehearsal and bragged the whole way about how he could get there faster than anyone (14 minutes on average, but 25 minutes in traffic). I couldn’t tell you his secret route because I had my eyes squeezed shut the entire way.

Their rehearsal studio is a large one-story building tiled warehouse with one large rehearsal space, a huge storage area and a couple of smaller offices. It smells of dust and instant coffee. That, along with seeing all their percussion and cases made the space feel instantly familiar. We got right down to business rehearsing Lukas’ piece. There’s no better way to get to know people than to rehearse with them. You learn so much from watching them play, seeing them communicate, and in turn, communicating with them. I think there was initial shock on both our parts hearing the whole composite for the first time. But the piece came together pretty quickly because we were all very prepared.

After a couple of days of rehearsal, Lukas arrived. Lukas is a slight man, extremely soft-spoken, humble and gracious, and speaks a million languages, having lived all over the world. He was preceded by a television crew, who grabbed Nathalie for an interview, then proceeded to film us playing through his piece for the first time for him. Probably not what we would have chosen to do, but we rolled with it. He had some general balance comments and some questions for us about his notation, but he mostly was enthusiastic and let us do our own thing. We needed to rehearse our own repertoire for the concert, and he stayed to listen to us run our arrangements of his father’s piano etudes – a somewhat surreal experience – and the Higdon concerto, which we’re playing in a week.

The day of the concert was Friday the 13th. After a sound check, Lukas joined us in the adjacent Opus Jazz Club for dinner. The waiter brought us all bottles of water, pre-opened. Lukas had ordered a 1.5L bottle, saying how he doesn’t drink coffee or alcohol, but loves to drink a lot of water. I left the table for a moment to FaceTime with my son, and when I came back, there was a little hullabaloo at the table. I asked what was wrong, and Lukas explained that there was something very wrong with the water. Since we all had the same bottles of water, we were a little skeptical and thought maybe he was being a little neurotic. (You know how composers can be.) But he kept insisting that it was cough syrup or something, so I offered to try it. I poured a little into a glass and sniffed it first. No smell. I took a sip, and instantly spat it out as a reflex. There was no mistaking it – it was simple syrup. If you taste that when you’re expecting water, it’s not far-fetched to think someone’s trying to poison you. We called the waiter over and tried our best to explain it. He looked at us like we were crazy, but took the bottle away. A bit later, he came back with a new bottle of water and sheepishly explained that he had accidentally taken the bottle of syrup meant for mojitos from the bar. Then he joked that it was because it was Friday the 13th. Lukas was not amused.

With rehearsals every day, it was honestly pretty difficult to drag ourselves out of our jet-lagged funk to do anything exciting besides eat. We spent a morning at the Central Market Hall buying paprika, walked over to the opera house, and had some aperol spritzes by the Fisherman’s Bastion, but that’s about it. I kept seeing places I was curious about, but there just wasn’t the time or energy to see them. I hope we have an opportunity to return so I can give the city, especially the Pest side, another go.

The concert went very well, and the audience was very enthusiastic, doing that rhythmic clapping thing that we’ve encountered with European audiences. Lukas and his mom were in attendance, as well as György Kurtag, who apparently only stayed for a little of the first half. It was a fitting culmination to almost a week of hard work with Amadinda, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve made some new friends.

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