Conductor / Violinist / Composer  Frederic  Balazs

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In the words of the great pianist, Claudio Arrau, Frederic Balazs is "a brilliant conductor of rare gifts with musicianship, intelligence, and inspirational capacity of great depth." Born in Budapest, he studied violin as a child under Béla Bartók, Ernst Von Dohnányi and Zoltán Kodály. He became concert violinist and concertmaster of the Budapest Symphony at the age of 17. He acquired his intense affinity with the technique and spirit of the orchestra by working under such greats as Bruno Walter, Toscanini, Ormandy, and Furtwängler.

Balazs (December 12, 1920 [not 1919 according to him when I asked about the discrepancy, and he complimented me for being so thorough] - June 2, 2018) came to  the United States and joined the Army after Pearl Harbor, serving with several adventuresome "distinctions". As a result of his service, Balazs was awarded a lifetime honorary membership to the American Composers Alliance upon returning home.

At the age of 23, his Divertimento was performed in California, at a meeting of the International Society for Contemporary Music. His music was compared to that of Bartók, and his string quartets have received unusually high praise, and comparison with the great quartets of Shostakovich, Ives, and Piston. His music has been characterized as plaintive, lyrical, and also romantic, or vigorous and high-spirited.

Balazs is known for his work in building and establishing young ensembles, such as the Wichita Falls Symphony and the Tucson Symphony, both of which blossomed into major ensembles under his direction. He was often sought out as a director of training orchestra programs in seminars and festivals. Composer Miklós Rózsa comments that Balazs is "an excellent conductor who works with and engenders reciprocal warmth and enthusiasm." Conductor Antal Dorati singled him out as "a splendid violinist and a conductor of rare gifts."

Through his long life and wide experiences, Frederic Balazs possessed an unlimited repertoire of symphonic, concerto, operatic, and pops literature. As a champion of contemporary music, he recorded many premiere works for CRI, a label that was originally founded by the American Composers Alliance. He received the Alice M. Ditson Award for outstanding contributions to American music, honorary membership in the International Mark Twain Literary Society, and many other awards and honors.

He lived for many years in San Luis Obispo, California, where he founded Music and the Arts for Youth (MAY), to assist and award young talent. His work with, and on behalf of children and youth in music was featured on the NBC Evening News as the "Musical Genius and the Pied Piper of California."

Maestro Balazs is currently living in Arizona, where he composes full-time. He was celebrated in 2003, during the 75th anniversary celebration of the Tucson Symphony, and his "Song--after Walt Whitman" for orchestra performed by the TSO with the Arizona Boys' Chorus, and "Prayers from the Ark" for children's voices and piano, both major works, were performed in celebration of the Boys Chorus's 70th anniversary in November, 2009.

His piano was a gift from his friend and colleague, ACA composer Walter Mourant.


Biography mostly from the American Composers Alliance website, as well as other sources.

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Frederic Balazs was born in Budapest in 1920 and was graduated cum laude from the Royal Academy of Music.

He came to the United States during World War II and, after serving four years in the armed forces, settled temporarily in Philadelphia. He has appeared as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Lewisohn Stadium, New York City; Grant Park Symphony Orchestra. Chicago; Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra and numerous groups in Canada and Europe. Mr. Balazs has also contributed to educational procedures, the assisting of young talent and sociological aspects of music. In recognition of his services on behalf of music for young people, he was recently named chairman of the Youth Orchestras Project of the National Federation of Music Clubs. Mr. Balazs’ many-sided interests are also reflected in his appointment as regional chairman for the Metropolitan Opera Auditions-of-the-Air.

The importance of folk music in the heritage of many American composers prompted him to organize the American Contemporary Music Center in Tucson, Arizona, where he now resides with his wife and four small children. He was recently director of the summer festival at Woodstock, where he conducted the orchestra and also served as first violin of the resident string quartet, in the European tradition. He is now permanent Conductor and Music Director of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

==  Biography from the CRI record jacket  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Over the years, I tried to never miss an opportunity when it came to doing these interviews.  While speaking with Walter Mourant at the end of July of 1987, he mentioned his friend Frederic Balazs, and I pounced on the possibility of getting his contact information.  This led to the conversation below, which was held a mere six weeks later!
As my questions triggered thoughts and memories in his mind, Balazs sometimes moved from one subject to another.  I have tried to pull things together in a logical manner, but occasionally our discussion simply wandered along.  It was a fascinating hour, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating in it.

Bruce Duffie:   You are both composer and a conductor?

Frederic Balazs:   I’m mostly a conductor, yes.

BD:   Do you feel you are a better conductor because you also compose?

Balazs:   I’m a better composer because I also conduct, and I’m a better conductor because I’m a violinist.  Not long ago, I played all the Bach solo sonatas in one unprecedented program.

BD:   My goodness!

Balazs:   Yes, and it had very good reviews.

BD:   What about your compositions besides the ones on the CRI LP?

Balazs:   The very fine Borealis Wind Quintet from New York did my Wind Quintet recently, and the Fresk Quartet of Sweden did my String Quartet all over Europe.

BD:   How do you divide your time between the conducting, composing, and performing?

Balazs:   Where I live, San Luis Obisbo in California [roughly half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles], is a very lovely little city next to the Ocean, where there is peace.  It is away from the rat-race, so to speak, and it leads to introvert activities, such as composing.  Earlier in the week I just finished a beautiful song on a poem of Federico García Lorca.  Then, when I want the rat-race, I go back to the violin and to conducting.  Not too long ago, I was in Korea with the Nasung Symphony, and then the Japanese Philharmonic, and after that I come back here.  It’s nice and peaceful to go to the farmers market and buy my lettuce and tomatoes, and then go back and compose.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your music that you have heard?

Balazs:   So far I’m very, very pleased, especially this recent performance by the Borealis Wind Quintet of New York.  They are a young group and are very famous.  They won all kinds of national awards, and they discovered this wind quintet, and are going to program it and do it in their repertory.  Then there is the Fresk Quartet of Sweden who are going all over Europe with my String Quartet #5.  For them I wrote the Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra.  It is a very big work, and who knows when or if it’s ever going to be performed.  But it’s an idiom that will open the way for opportunities for a string quartet to work with orchestra.

BD:   Is it really a concerto, or is it a concerto grosso?

Balazs:   It’s a real concerto.  It’s very meaningful, and very pregnant with ideas.

BD:   Did they commission you to do this?

Balazs:   They did such a beautiful job with my No. 5, so they asked for a No. 6.  I really hadn’t thought about writing a No. 6, but it grew and grew and grew.  It’s not just a string quartet, it’s a concerto.  It’s about a fifty-minute work.  The first movement is called Rhapsody.  If anybody would ever have a chance to read St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun, it’s a beautiful exultation of nature.  That’s the first movement.  Then I have references of Walt Whitman in the second movement, and a little song of Hungarian children, with rhythmical boom, boom, boom.  For the last movement, I think my former composition teacher would be very grateful that I did not fail him.  It’s a set of fifty-four or fifty-five variations on five notes, and I’m very happy about it.  Anyway, I just wish that our outlets in this country would be available to do things like this.  The trouble is there are so many new works, and so much junk.  Just because it’s contemporary, it doesn’t have to be out of tune, and out of sorts.  I feel I have something to say.

BD:   Do you write in a basically tonal idiom?

Balazs:   No, not really, but people tell me it’s accessible and meaningful.

BD:   Are the pieces that you write mostly on commission, or are they things you just feel you have to express?

Balazs:   No, I just like to write them.  Over the weekend I found a beautiful poem by Federico García Lorca, the great Spanish poet who was shot as a political figure during the Spanish Civil War.  In two days I came up with a song that I think is very meaningful.  I have written some songs, and this one is in Spanish.  Manuel de Falla would think that maybe I’m part Flamenco!

BD:   Do you feel you are part of a lineage or heritage of composers?

Balazs:   No.  No heritage, no nothing.  But the trees are so beautiful, and they should not be cut down to make paper unless we have something to say which is creative.

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BD:   You were talking about writing a song, and I noticed in your biography that you had something to do with the Metropolitan auditions of the air.
Balazs:   [Laughs]  Oh, that was a long time ago.

BD:   That’s all right.  My question is, when you’re listening to a voice, what do you look for in judging it?

Balazs:   The voice is not alone as an instrument without the background of meaning.  Somebody could have the capacity to run up and down on the violin, but Paganini could play it faster.  We can ask who can sing louder, but that’s not the point.  The point is, what is music, what is art?  We have to be very humble about our individual talent, and how to bring it about, or it affects nature.  I don’t know how to put it.  Words are very awkward and very silly sometimes, and one wants to answer such wonderful questions that you have, but words are not really descriptive.

BD:   Then let me give you another possibly impossible question!  What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music?

Balazs:   Who knows?  All people have talent.  I admire the banker on Wall Street.  I admire you in your capacity on the radio.  Each one of us has to follow our various ways of talent, and we try to create nature.  How to create it is the question.  It’s a kind of need that human people have for beauty.  Some people have it in drawing a flower, or making poetry, so those of us who are blessed with understanding music, do it that way to create beauty of soun
dwhich is a natural phenomenonjust like the grass is green, I would say.

BD:   Where do you feel music is going today?

Balazs:   Who knows?  There is so much farce, and so much commercialism.  Those were in existence in the days of Mozart and Beethoven as well, but the problem today is about having anybody emerging as a special kind of a talent, and that is difficult.  People think that just because it’s out of tune it’s contemporary, and therefore it’s modern, and therefore it’s new, and therefore we don’t want it!  Schubert was the least unknown person in his days, and it took him a while to emerge and make him come about like a force bringing civilization about.  [Pauses]  Perhaps I’m just rambling...

BD:   [Re-assuringly]  No, that’s all right!  I’m getting some interesting thoughts, and finding how the mind of Frederick Balazs works!

Balazs:   I’m also teaching.  I enjoy helping a little five-year-old get from the D string to the G string on the violin.  I enjoy conducting the Korean Nasung Symphony, which is coming up soon again.  Also I will work with the Japanese Philharmonic, and will be in Hamburg.  I enjoy doing this, and I think I have a very healthy life.  During two days during the Labor Day holiday, after having barbequed ribs with lovely friends, I was very inspired to go into the world of Federico García Lorca, and I finished the beautiful song.

BD:   Have you been involved with music all of your life?

Balazs:   Oh God, yes, since I was five and a half!

BD:   May I ask your birth date?  
The reason I want to clarify it is that on the back of the record it says 1920, and in another book it’s says 1919.

Balazs:   [Laughs]  
It’s 1920, and it’s very nice of you to be so thorough about it.  I’m basically a violinist who grew into conducting, who grew into composing.  I’ve been 39 for a very long time!  I won an international prize called The Reményi Prize in Budapest in 1936 or ’37, as a violinist.  I could play the violin really, really well, and I wasn’t afraid.  This was because I didn’t know what I was up to, and I wasn’t afraid to do it!  Now that I’m past 39, I value the fact that I live in this wonderful little city where I can do a lot of good.  We have what we call MAY, which is Music and Art for Youth.  It is a foundation which I helped start.  We have young talent and all forms of art, and some really world-renowned colleagues come here not only to play a concert, but then I direct them to play for school children, to have classes, workshops, and thrown in is Uncle Fred’s World-Famous Chicken Paprikash.  Since you are in Chicago, do you know Victor Aitay?

BD:   Of course.  He’s concert-master with the Chicago Symphony!

Balazs:   Sure!  He and I grew up together as little boys.  My father took his very first professional picture at aged four with his eighth-size violin.  We also grew up with Janos Starker, so I feel very much at home with the Chicago gang over there.


BD:   I noticed that you conducted at the Grant Park Concerts years ago.  [These are outdoor performances in the bandshell at the lakefront each summer.  To see photos of the different bandshells over the years, click HERE.]

Balazs:   That’s right.  I forgot the name of the director, but it was a fiasco.  I was there twice, and both times, thanks to the Chicago weather, we were blown off the map with rain storms.  I remember I was staying at the Blackstone hotel, and the water in the lobby was up to their knees.

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BD:   When you’re conducting, how do you decide which music you will present?

Balazs:   Oh my goodness!  I’m very broad-minded.  I love everything!  Soon I will conduct the Tucson Symphony, which was mine for fourteen years, and they selected the main item, which is the Berlioz Harold in Italy.  Maybe they think that kind music is my forte.

BD:   For you as a musician, what constitutes a great piece of music?  And then, what separates a great piece of music from a poor piece of music?
Balazs:   One that is of the heart and not of the mind.  The kind of music or art that can be explained is not art.  The less we can explain it, the more art it becomes.  Therefore whatever music I do, I like to do things that are not that much explainable.  Who can explain the crazy mind of Berlioz, for instance?

BD:   Then do you try to put the unexplainable into your own compositions?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Karel Husa.]

Balazs:   No, it just comes.  I have my grapefruit juice diluted with some vodka, fermented potato juice, and I go to it!

BD:   Do you ever go back and revise your scores?

Balazs:   Oh, all the time, sure.  You give it two or three days, and when you come back to it you think it is a crazy thing you did, and you do it over.  You get new ideas, new ideas, new ideas, so it’s very hard to say when your composition is ready.

BD:   How do you decide when to stop revising?

Balazs:   You don’t.  You just copy it, and it’s good enough as it is.  Then, maybe two or three years later you think about the crazy thing you did.  Maybe you just change a few little things, but basically, like this song of Lorca, it’s beautiful earthy poetry, and it’s good as it is.  There are little changes that may happen, but they are not important.  The scope is there, the feeling is there, the oomph is there!  [Pauses a moment]  Do you know the name Douglas Mackinnon?  He was with WQXR for many years, and was very nice to me when I first came to this country.

BD:   George Jellinek is there now, and I have interviewed him.  We run his program The Vocal Scene each week here in Chicago.  [Balazs then asked about WNIB, and I told him some details of its history and programming.  I then reminded him that it was his friend, Walter Mourant, who led me to this interview.]

Balazs:   It’s a very funny thing...  I got some music from the American Composers Alliance, and I was very taken by Walter Mourant’s work.  So, I collected his compositions in Europe, and we recorded it.  By coincidence, I am living in this lovely little oceanside little city, and lo and behold here lives Walter Mourant!  We had never met before!  On the LP [shown above] is of one of my compositions, called Two Dances for Flute and Orchestra, and on the other side is Walter Mourant’s compositions.  Of course, he claims that on the other side of his compositions is mine!  [Both laugh]  But what a small world!  Now that we have met, every couple of weeks or so we have cocktails together at a nice place, and talk about composers, and composing.  We’re good friends over here, and thanks to him you are calling me.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers coming along today?

Balazs:   Don’t do it unless you have something to say.  The ability to play with sounds is not a toy unless it expresses something inexpressible by words.  Otherwise, forget it!  Go dig a ditch, or go to climb a mountain, but forget it unless you really have something to say, and know how to say it.  Just to know how to say something doesn’t make you a composer.  In other words, just technique alone is not enough.

BD:   For music in general, where should the balance be between inspiration and technique?

Balazs:   This question has been posed for hundreds of years before you, and nobody has answered it by words.  We know the names of the composers who have answered it through their compositions.  It’s nothing new, but some seem that they don’t have that much to say.  They may have learned how to say it, and that goes with other things, such as literature and art, and so forth.  They get the technique, but then they don’t know what to do with it because they don’t know what to say.  If they don’t know what to say, become a banker, or whatever.

BD:   Then let me ask another balance question.  Where is the balance in music between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?

Balazs:   Entertainment is on the beholder.  If you are being entertained by rock ’n roll, that’s beautiful.  If you’re entertained by Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, it’s equally beautiful.  So, it depends on the person who receives it.

BD:   Do you feel that rock ’n roll is music?

Balazs:   For five minutes I can take it, and the rest of it is repetition.  It goes to the feet, and boom, boom, boom!  So, it is nothing but fun.  I have had the experience myself many, many times of young people who were not exposed to art music, like the young man who out carries out grocery bags from Safeway.  I invited him to come into my concert when José Iturbi was playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto.  This young man had never ever been in a symphony concert before, but he liked it.  The next day after the concert, he said he had never ever experienced such a beautiful event in his life.  Then he asked who had made the arrangement?  [Both laughs]  I said that what he heard was the original.  He never knew there was such a thing as an original.  He thought it was a great arrangement!  So, I feel like a kind of a pioneer!  Here locally and area-wise, I take my violin and play for school children.  I was on NBC News not long ago and was called ‘the pied piper’.  But it’s so beautiful to play for school children.  They are unspoiled.  I play them unaccompanied Bach, Paganini, and The Flight of the Bumble Bee.  It is just a great experience for me to see what it does to innocent, uninitiated minds and hearts of those young people.

BD:   Do you feel that audiences have made the same kind of progress that musicians have made over the last twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years?

Balazs:   I don’t know.  It is just that we have the competition of the selling business.  Toothpaste is sold by a certain way of advertising, and the average person thinks that whatever they hear about the name which is mentioned, the more it costs, it must be the best.  It’s the same kind of competition for us artists, and how to convey what is the most mentioned, and most worthy, and the most popular are not necessarily the greatest.  Many times I corner a very simple person, and I get my Vuillaume French violin out, and play an unaccompanied Bach movement.  They think that it’s very beautiful even if they were never exposed to it.  

BD:   Should the concert managements try to get more and more people to come to the performances?

Balazs:   We have great foundations and promotions to have the young artists, but we haven’t put together enough ideas about the outlets for them.  We have tremendous talent, but they don’t have the outlets in this country.  All these foundations should work towards this, not so much in promoting the talent which we have, but the desire in people to receive that talent.

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BD:   Earlier I asked you for advice to composers.  Let me ask you what advice you have for conductors today?

Balazs:   Learn how to read a score, and forget this ‘I, me, myself’ business.  The more humble the conductors, the better they would be.  Some people think that they want to be conductors because they can rule over a body of many people.  They think that waving their arms around is the making of a conductor, but that’s not it.


BD:   What makes a conductor?

Balazs:   Conductors are so afraid to realize the greatness of a masterpiece that they would be afraid to promote it.  Being humble helps to make a great conductor.  Felix Weingartner (1863-1942) was a great classic of the old school.  He knew Franz Liszt very well, and was at one time the greatest interpreter of Beethoven.  Then there was also Arthur Nikisch (1855-1922).  He would just be terribly small before a masterwork.  Conductors today wave their arms around like they’re catching flies.  You don’t know what the hell it is all about, and the audience, unfortunately, doesn’t know either.  The guy who waves his arms around the fastest is the more successful, and gets a standing ovation because the orchestra is fast and loud.  But good God, that’s not art.

BD:   How do we get more conductors to understand art?

Balazs:   We should get fewer conductors, and somehow more education.  There should be more fore-warning so that the average person would know what is good, and what is mediocre, and what is not good.  It’s very hard to explain.  I have some colleagues who are great, and some students who are now in the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra, and instructors of music departments.  I have three or four concert masters of major symphony orchestras that were my students.  But I want these people to be scared of what they are facing.  [Pauses again]  You’re asking very good questions which are very hard to answer!

BD:   I very much appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

Balazs:   Well, my goodness, it’s very wonderful that you want to do it.  I am grateful for your interest.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 7, 1987.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.