Gilbert Varga, son of the celebrated Hungarian violinist Tibor Varga, studied under three very different and distinctive maestros: Franco Ferrara, Sergiu Celibidache and Charles Bruck. A commanding and authoritative figure on the podium, Varga is renowned for his elegant baton technique, and has held positions with and guest-conducted many of the major orchestras across the world.
In North America, Varga regularly guest conducts the symphony orchestras of Houston, St Louis, Atlanta, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Utah and Nashville amongst others and in 13-14 makes his debut with the orchestras of Kansas City and San Diego. In Europe, Varga works regularly with the major orchestras of Berlin, Leipzig, Frankfurt, Cologne, Budapest, Porto, Brussels and Glasgow amongst others. In May 2013 Varga was appointed Principal Conductor of the Taipei Symphony Orchestra, an appointment that comes at an exciting time for the orchestra as the city of Taipei embarks upon a journey to build the orchestra its own concert hall, a process in which Varga will be heavily involved as Consultant.
Repeatedly acclaimed for his ability to draw out a broad range of colours and emotions from the orchestra, Varga’s programmes frequently feature the ballet suites, tone poems and symphonies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Of a recent performance of Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, the Leipziger-Volkszeitung commented: “The Hungarian gypsies were lascivious and witty under Varga’s baton, full of fire with ardent strings and blazing brass. The oboe, clarinet and horn gave beautiful solos, and the flutes and piccolo were so soft, that the delicate pizzicato sounded almost coarse.”
In the earlier part of his conducting career Varga concentrated on work with chamber orchestras, particularly the Tibor Varga Chamber Orchestra, before rapidly developing a reputation as a symphonic conductor. He was Chief Conductor of the Hofer Symphoniker between 1980 and 1985, and from 1985 to 1990 he was Chief Conductor of the Philharmonia Hungarica in Marl, conducting their debut tour to Hungary with Yehudi Menuhin. In 1991 Varga took up the position of Permanent Guest Conductor of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra until 1995, and from 1997 to 2000 was Principal Guest of the Malmö Symphony. From 1997 to 2008, Varga was Music Director of the Basque National Symphony Orchestra, leading them through ten seasons, including tours across the UK, Germany, Spain and South America.
Varga’s discography includes recordings with various labels including ASV, Koch International and Claves Records. His latest recording, released in January 2011, of concertos by Ravel and Prokofiev with Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and Anna Vinnitskaya on Naïve Records was given five stars by BBC Music Magazine.
Gilbert Varga is represented by Intermusica.
2013/14 season / 428 words. Not to be altered without permission. Please destroy all previous biographical material.
Bern Symphony Orchestra / Bartók, Brahms
“Soyoung Yoon’s unabashed sensuality was supported by guest conductor Gilbert Varga who cultivated a warm, rather rounded sound. The 61-year-old Brit encouraged the musicians into precise playing, both in the Bartók and in Brahms’ Symphony No.1 – and the sound of this Brahms was a complete marvel. The fact that Varga to some extent comes from an outdated school of conducting was immediately forgotten as listeners were carried along. All brooding elements seemed to disappear in favour of an optimism that was excitingly dance-like at times, fearless at others. Varga roared through the piece, even finally through all the contrapuntal complexities.”
Berner Zeitung, April 2014
Kansas City Symphony / Haydn, Beethoven, Franck
“Led by conductor Gilbert Varga, the Kansas City Symphony played a beautiful program full of energy and spirit last Friday night…
The Overture is in four short sections: Adagio maestoso – Presto – Andantino – Allegro di molto. The music was incredibly crisp and clear, assisted by Varga’s simple but distinct conducting style. After a brief and slow introduction, the Overture elolves into fast scalar passages that the string section played deliberately and lightly. The second slow section showcased a delicate melody played sweetly and then launched into another lively allegro bringing the Overture to a swift close…
The orchestra was emotionally moving and engaging in their sound and presentation of this piece. It was amazing how Varga conducted without the score, achieving these mesmerizing sounds from the orchestra.”
Jordan Buchholtz, KC Metropolis, April 2014
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra / Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saëns, Berlioz
“On Friday at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, it was clear from the first notes of the overture that it was going to be a night of tightly focused, all-out music-making.
Varga had the players tearing into the rip-roaring portions of the piece, but he was even more attentive to the sweet spots, ensuring transparency and finesse all the while.
Varga proved a masterful interpreter of Tchaikovsky's 'Pathetique'. He pushed the symphony's emotional buttons hard, but didn't exaggerate; everything felt organic, inevitable. The conductor's flair for shaping a long crescendo proved especially admirable, making each gradation all the more gripping, each crest all the more shattering.”
Tim Smith, Baltimore Sun, February 2014
Nashville Symphony Orchestra / Mendelssohn, Schumann, Stravinsky, Dvorak
“He opened with a rendition of Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that glistened and sparkled – the soft, scurrying strings in the opening had an ethereal quality that was magical.
The NSO performed the abridged 1919 orchestral version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, but Varga didn’t let us forget this score had originally been ballet music – he seemed to be showing the musicians exactly how the music should feel. He conducted the “Infernal Dance of King Katschei” with ferocity and menace, and his reading of the finale shimmered with an incandescent glow.”
John Pitcher, ArtsNash, November 2013
Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Respighi Roman Festivals & Ancient Airs and Dances & Rodrigo Concierto de Aranjuez
“Varga brought out all the detail – beautiful rolling waltz-time cellos in Respighi's Ancient Airs and Dances; a particularly lovely bass sound in the second movement of the Rodrigo – with apparently little effort. But he threw himself into Roman Festivals with an enlarged orchestra absolutely alert to the composition's big stabbing punctuations juxtaposed with the gentlest murmurings of strings, the discreet work of 10 percussionists and even a mandolin cameo.
This was Roman hedonism writ large, with mad carousels – or maybe carousals – and a revelling trombone adding to a spectacle that could have resulted in carnage, but was brought to almost pictorial life with marvellous expertise.”
Rob Adams, Herald, April 2013
Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra / Dvorak Symphony No. 9 New World
“Gilbert Varga had been conducting very elegantly, smoothly and pleasantly. But then came Dvorak’s 9th Symphony ‘New World’, the one that everyone can hum the tune to. And this performance was like an exciting thriller: very energetic, very well-planned, completely under control and with a beautiful velvety sound from the orchestra, who played with volume and body even in the forte sections. This was an impressive and unexpected interpretation.”
Clemens Goldberg, kulturradio.de, December 2012
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / Sibelius Valse triste & Franck Symphony in D minor
“In this melancholy month of November, the Gürzenich-Orchester opened their concert most fittingly with Sibelius’ ‘Valse triste’. And yet the performance was anything but ‘triste’; the audience were gripped by the extraordinary quality of the violin cantilena, which cried out that guest conductor Gilbert Varga, son of violinist Tibor Varga, was clearly the right man for the job.
(…) The concert ended with César Franck’s Symphony in D minor… Unforgettable phrases, translucent counterpoint, and original structures: this is a beautiful piece, which Varga and the orchestra impressed on the audience in the most winsome manner. The conductor’s beat was very precise, leaving nothing to chance, and enabling him to convey the exquisite gradations in sound as effectively as the specific melodic quality of the piece, and the maelstrom of intensification before the reprise. It is common knowledge that the Gürzenich Orchester is looking for a successor to Marjus Stenz: is Varga available"
Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger, November 2012
MDR Leipzig / Mozart Symphony Nos. 1 & 41 & Matthus Violin Concerto (Viviane Hagner)
“The MDR Musiksommer festival chalked up a great success with a truly extraordinary concert: Gilbert Varga was on the podium, and with his fantastic musical intelligence, his feel for nuances and for literature, he proved himself an absolutely ideal partner for this excellent orchestra. Putting Mozart’s first and last symphonies together in one programme was a brave move. Varga performed the two pieces with authenticity, and wasn’t afraid to play the third movement of the Jupiter symphony as it was intended: as a minuet. The musicians enjoyed themselves, and the audience loved it. In between the symphonies was the recently premiered piece "Traum einer Sommernacht" by composer Siegfried Matthus, a master of orchestration. The wonderful soloist Viviane Hagner was exactly the right musician for this piece, and together with Varga, plumbed the depths of this score most impressively.
Dr Tatjana Mehner, OTZ Thüringen, September 2012
Maestro Varga’s performance was full of and life, effectively layering the dynamics and bringing out the sharp accents and entries. He achieved great clarity in the outer movements (…). The conductor structured the themes and their developments in the sonata movement with great attention to detail.
Julia Stadter, OTZ Gera, September 2012
Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra / Mendelssohn
“Warmth, precision and clarity permeate both Mendelssohn’s best music and the conducting of Gilbert Varga… Varga, like Mendelssohn, is expressive but not overwrought, Romantic in spirit but balanced in structure, and unaffected and graceful in gesture... His impeccable technique makes every cue and articulation specific, with the result of superb ensemble, clean-cut rhythm and a world of fine shadings of tempo, dynamics, weight, attack and release.”
Third Coast Digest, September 2012
Varga took tempos that were lively but never flippant, highlighting the character of each movement (Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 4) … The players responded with marvelously long, intense crescendos in the piece's first movement, and a strikingly homogeneous string sound in the second movement. Light-handed playing and deftly dovetailed phrases made the third movement sing, followed by a relentless energy that brought the fourth movement to a compelling finish.
Journal Sentinel, September 2012
Frankfurter Museumsgesellschaft Orchester with Anna Vinnitskaya / Mozart, Grieg & Schumann
“Only a couple of the opening bars, taken more swiftly than is usually the case, sufficed to show that this was not a run-of the mill performance[...] Under the baton of Gilbert Varga, the orchestra gave a performance where sensitivity replaced sentimentality, and where virtuosity wasn’t used for show, but rather for a thorough exploration of the piece.
His perfect shaping of the phrases, and his dynamic control of each movement left nothing to be desired, and he captivated the audience with the vitality and flexibility of his interpretation.”
Frankfurter Allgemeine, May 2012
“Once again, Varga used very purposeful entries to achieve an effective and multi-facetted orchestral sound [...] The lively finale was performed in the same way that the concert had begun: life-affirming and full of exuberance. In short, this was music at its most passionate. And the applause at the end was equally impassioned.”
Frankfurter Neue Presse, May 2012
“In Mozart’s Symphony in A major KV.201, the conductor and orchestra gave a masterly performance in sophistication, eloquence and sublime wit; achieved not through showiness, but through sheer variety of expression.”
Frankfurter Rundschau, May 2012
Colorado Symphony Orchestra, with Jeffrey Kahane (piano) / Beethoven & Holst
“With elegance and verve, Varga directed the orchestra in a wholehearted performance of the forceful, warlike themes in "Mars." But it was arguably the final "Neptune" movement — with the women's chorus adding a wonderfully haunting, mysterious air — that best captured the magnificence and wonder of worlds beyond our own.”
Sabine Kortals, The Denver Post, October 2011
Houston Symphony Orchestra, with Daniel Mueller-Schott (cello) / Haydn & Ravel
“Gilbert Varga bringing a dashing presence and attentive style to the podium… showed his command instantly with an astute reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 49, the opening work. In this rather somber work, Varga drew tight playing and clean sound from the orchestra, with deft control of dynamics.
With vivid playing under Varga's astute leadership, [Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2] proved a grand orchestral showpiece, from ethereal passages the aural equivalent of sunlight on rippling water, to the surging swells of sound in the finale's bacchanalian frenzy.”
Everett Evans, Arts Writer, October 2011
Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Marc-André Hamelin (piano) / Kodály, Haydn & Beethoven
“But if Varga seemed naturally at home in this music of his own homeland, his empathy for the Beethoven […] was no less impressive.
Nor was it for Haydn's pithy little Symphony No. 70, a real peach of work. Varga's performance focused on the music's wit and elegance, leaving our palates truly cleansed for the flavoursome pleasures of Háry János.”
Kenneth Walton, The Scotsman, April 2011
“… with Varga, the orchestra produced a clean and sizzling account of [Haydn’s] 70th Symphony, a performance that allowed the endlessly inventive imagination of the composer to stream through at every unexpectred turn.”
Michael Tumelty, The Herald, April 2011
MDR Symphony Orchestra, with Patricia Kopatchinskaja (piano) / Bartók, Haydn & Kodály
“Varga had been the calming influence who held the threads together through the complex rhythms and changes of tempo, here he coaxed Haydn’s subtle jokes out of the score with the most subtle of gestures. He untiringly subdued the strings to a pianissimo, and encouraged the filigree details from the brass section.”
Birgit Hendrich, Leipziger-Volkszeitung, April 2011
Colorado Symphony Orchestra, with Joseph Moog (piano) / Haydn, Liszt, Schubert & R. Strauss
“He led an elegant, satisfying interpretation of Franz Schubert's well-known Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, "Unfinished," bringing out its inner dialogue, exerting nuanced dynamic control and adroitly shaping its shifting moods and textures.”
Kyle MacMillan, The Denver Post, March 2011
Prokofiev & Ravel: Piano Concertos; (Naïve V5238)
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, with Anna Vinnitskaya
“… one of the finest Prokofiev Seconds on record […]”
Philip Clark, Classic FM Magazine, April 2011
“Gilbert Varga’s direction is precise and detailed as well as being […] atmospheric […]”
David Nice, BBC Music Magazine, five stars (recording), February 2011
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, with Marc-André Hamelin (piano) / Mozart, Claude Baker & Franck
“Varga has been in the top echelon of ISO guest conductors in the last two years; with the Franck, he once again affirmed his reputation.”
Tom Aldridge, NUVO, January 2011
Minnesota Orchestra, with Anthony Ross (cello) / Rossini, Walton & Dvořák
“The Minnesota Orchestra doesn't have a “principal guest conductor” position on its payroll, but, if it did, Gilbert Varga would be an ideal candidate for the job. An almost-annual visitor since 2002, Varga's developed a chemistry with the ensemble that was palpable all the way to the back of the balcony at Minneapolis' Orchestra Hall on Thursday morning. The silver-maned Hungarian conductor's enthusiasm and energy are a fine fit for this group, and it spreads to the audience whenever they perform.”
Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press, October 2010