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Obituary: Laszlo Heltay (1930-2019)

Laszlo Heltay former Director of Music at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre)

Laszlo Heltay died in Budapest on 17 December, three weeks short of his 90th birthday.

It would be difficult to over-estimate the influence of Laszlo Heltay upon generations of choral singers and conductors all over the world who revered him for his musicianship, charisma and high standards.
The clarity and agility which he demanded from his choirs perhaps reached its apogée with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chorus which he founded in 1975 when Sir Neville Marriner sought a group whose singing style would match to perfection the style of his already well-established orchestra. The solid purity of style was only then beginning in the choral world with the likes of the Monteverdi Choir, and marked a new sound far removed from the clipped Anglican cathedral and voluminous Choral Society traditions. Laszlo was a leading light in this movement.

Generations of Sussex music students and music lovers were lucky that from 1968 until the mid 1980s he was Director of Music at the Gardner Arts Centre (now the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts), where he conducted the first ever concert at the Centre in December 1969 and trained the University Choir and Orchestra.

In 1967 he created Brighton Festival Chorus which, then as now, rehearsed on campus and in 1995 the University conferred on him an Honorary Doctor of Music (DMus). A pupil of Kodaly at the Franz Liszt Academy, he supported the anti-Communist uprising in 1956 while a producer at the Hungarian Radio from where he fled to England, and won a place to pursue his music studies at Merton College Oxford, remaining there as Director of Music. He also founded Collegium Musicum Oxoniense (now re-named Schola Cantorum) and the Kodaly Choir, until he moved to New Zealand for three years to conduct the NZBC orchestra and NZ opera company.

At Sussex he often collaborated with the University Organist John Birch, which led to a professional lifetime of working together with the RPO, the ASMF and later the Royal Choral Society. He held prestigious positions with the Hamburg & Stuttgart Radio Choirs and from 1997 the Spanish TV and Radio Choir in Madrid. His recordings with all these groups are legion.

Always keen to encourage young musicians, especially conductors and choral singers, Laszlo was heavily involved with the Europa Cantat movement and he regularly toured European countries and further afield as Chorus Master, Guest Conductor, Masterclass leader or Jury member. His final visit to Brighton was in 2006 to conduct BFC in the 40th Brighton Festival in the Dome but alas he slipped awkwardly on the stage during the dress rehearsal and broke his hip.

Outside music, his chief passions were books, football and tennis, chess and dogs, and in both Spain (living for many years near Barcelona) and Hungary he worked hard to set up dog rescue centres. His autobiography was published in Hungary in 2018, mostly the result of discussions held with the eminent Hungarian author Istvan Elmer, with a title reflecting his combined canine and choral interests – sadly the idea of calling it “From Bach to Bark” did not translate well into Hungarian.

Although he knew precisely how to extract the most spiritual depth from the sacred music he prepared with many choirs, he was profoundly non-religious and was a great disciple of the works of Richard Dawkins. He long ago acquired British citizenship and lived in Hampstead but in the 1990s moved first to Barcelona and then back to Budapest, living in there with his beloved dog Charley.

Roger Walkinton (Euro 1977-81, Choral Scholar)

By: Sally Atkinson
Last updated: Wednesday, 5 February 2020