From the Fall 2016 Issue of Classical Guitar | BY STEVE MARSH
The identical twins Peter and Zoltán Katona were born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1968, and began their musical education at the age of ten. They have given recitals in many major concert venues around the world and have won numerous prestigious competitions in Hungary, France, Germany, London, and the United States. As the Katona Twins they’ve put out nine CDs so far, covering a wide spectrum of music ranging from Mozart, Bach, and Scarlatti, to Queen, the Doors, and the Beatles. Consummately skilled and precise, at times they also exhibit a surprisingly relaxed and laid-back manner onstage, coupled with their habit of performing certain pieces standing up. They have deservedly become among the classical guitar world’s musical “must see” performers.
On the day it was announced that the “fifth Beatle”—producer George Martin—had died, I happened to be traveling to the birthplace of the Fab Four to interview one-half of the Katona Twins, Peter Katona, at his home in the heart of the city of Liverpool, where the twins have lived (separately) for many years.
CLASSICAL GUITAR: Is it correct that the school you and your brother Zoltán went to required students to learn a musical instrument?
PETER KATONA: Yes. When we were ten years old, our music teacher noticed that we had a talent for clapping-back complicated rhythms, and our mother decided we should change to a special school where, besides the general subjects, we also had musical instruction every day. It might be choir or learning to read music, and everybody in our class had to learn to play an instrument. It was in the communist times [in Hungary], but luckily for us [composer] Zoltán Kodaly was not just a great composer and a brilliant pedagogue, but also an influential person. He persuaded the Hungarian politicians that learning music was important and beneficial for the development and education of youngsters. His idea was that learning to play a musical instrument teaches you discipline and concentration, which would then spill over into the other subjects. [So] a nationwide experiment with special musical classes and free instrumental education was started.
CG: Did you both choose the guitar simultaneously?
KATONA: We were both very keen to play guitar, but as with most teenagers, we were first attracted to the electric guitar and to popular music. However, that was not taught in the music schools of Hungary in those days. Classical guitar was the next best thing, so we started playing that, intending to change to the electric guitar at a later date. But that never happened because we learned to love the warm sound of the classical guitar and we realized that it was the instrument we really wanted to play.
CG: At that stage, did you get to hear recordings of guitarists such as Segovia, Julian Bream, and John Williams?
KATONA: At the beginning, not at all, but one day about three years after we started playing, our guitar teacher turned up with a tape recorder and played us recordings of Bream, Williams, Pepe Romero, and Paco de Lucía. He made copies of the tapes for us and we were fascinated by them and would listen to them all the time. Nowadays you can simply go on the internet and listen and even see amazing guitarists perform in your living room. In those days that was virtually impossible, especially in communist Hungary. Often, we couldn’t even guess how some guitarists, such as one of our heroes, Paco de Lucía, produced some of those amazing sounds.
CG: Did you ever get to see him perform in concert?
KATONA: Yes, but only about ten years later, when he came to play in a large arena in Budapest. I’ll never forget how surprised we were to see him playing with his legs crossed, which was supposed to be all wrong!
CG: Well, some people even play standing up, you know!
KATONA: Yes, I know! Truly shocking! [Laughs] We were always told that you had to play the guitar in the “classical” sitting position, using a footstool. Then, to see someone who we thought was the best guitarist in the world, not playing like that was a real shock.
It’s funny how many classical guitarists still believe that using the footstool with the raised left leg is the only and true traditional way. Historical drawings prove that at least two of the very best guitarists of the classical period did not play like that at all. Fernando Sor and Dionisio Aguado both held the instrument on the right leg and supported it either by a chair or a table or a special guitar stand invented for that very purpose. I still think that the so-called classical position has many advantages, and I still do play that way fairly often, especially when sight-reading. However, there are obvious [ergonomic] problems with it. The invention and widespread use of new devices to support the guitar, instead of using the footstool, takes pressure off the player’s spine, which is a great development.
CG: When you and your brother were learning together at school, did you both progress at the same rate?
KATONA: Yes. Part of the reason was that for a while we had just the one guitar between us and we shared a room together. If you live in the same room, it is very obvious and extremely annoying when your brother is doing something slightly better than you. It makes you want to keep up with him, and hopefully get even better. Also, if Zoltán practiced and I didn’t, it reminded me that I had to play, too, which was quite beneficial, and the exchange of ideas helped us develop both technically and musically. In those days, we mostly played the solo guitar repertoire and only very rarely the odd piece together. That changed dramatically after we heard the Assad Brothers in a concert in Germany when we were about 22 years old. We were so taken by their brilliant ensemble play and the fullness of the sound, that playing solo all of a sudden seemed utterly pointless to us. That was our “Eureka!” moment.
CG: How often do you two play your own arrangements?
KATONA: These days, always. When we first started playing as a duo, we used to perform other people’s arrangements. We even made a demo recording of somebody’s two-guitar version of a harpsichord piece. However, after hearing the original, we realized that the arrangement was not very well done at all, and we decided not to make that mistake again. Now, even when playing original duets by, say, Fernando Sor or [Mauro] Giuliani, we will change between the parts so that each of us has a fair share of solos and accompaniment. Those duets were often written with a master and a student in mind. But for a duo that has two equal players, it would be silly and extremely boring not to take turns when playing the melody.
CG: Do you ever quarrel about who plays what?
KATONA: Not really, since we generally produce two equally challenging parts. Although it has happened that I liked a particular part of an arrangement—its technical or musical challenge—and ended up giving myself the voice that played it. At the same time, when something seems too difficult and I don’t feel like practicing it, occasionally I think to myself: “That seems like too much sweat and hard work—let Zoltán have it!” [Laughs] Since the audience doesn’t necessarily notice who played the more difficult part, I still end up looking just as clever as he looks.
CG: How do you decide what sort of programs to prepare?
KATONA: If no special program requests are made by the organizer, we generally agree on a program that seems suitable for a particular venue and audience. At times, it may be that we are requested to play certain works, or a program with a special theme. For example, we’ve been asked to play a Hungarian program a few weeks from now. But since there are not too many original pieces for two guitars written by Hungarian composers, we decided to arrange a couple of other works we always wanted to play. I am just finalizing an arrangement of one of Zoltán Kodaly’s orchestra piece called Dances of Galanta.
When recording a CD, we like to focus on a particular composer or musical style. We did a CD of music by Joaquín Rodrigo. But, since he only wrote two pieces for guitar duets, we arranged some of his piano works to fill the 60-minute CD.
CG: You have also recorded CDs devoted entirely to the works of Vivaldi, de Falla, Bach, Albeniz, and Piazzolla.
KATONA: Yes. With the Piazzolla CD, it was the same [as with the Rodrigo]. Besides the Tango Suite—his only original piece for two guitars—we had to choose and arrange many of his other pieces, such as his Concerto Liege, originally written for guitar, bandoneon, and strings.
CG: You play 99 per cent of your repertoire together from memory. Do you have a specific method of learning the score?
KATONA: Yes, we do. Both of us have really bad memories, which strangely sometimes works in our favor—for example, if you want to change a fingering. Unfortunately, it does not work with pieces we have played for a very long time. Some old fingerings are so solidly etched into your memory that it is nearly impossible to erase them. It is especially annoying when, after working on a new and much better fingering for several months, you find yourself playing your old fingering again at a concert. It can be a really scary thing!
Memorizing a duo piece is more complex than learning a solo piece. If you are a soloist and have a memory lapse, you can simply jump to any place in the piece and continue. In a duo piece, you can’t do that. Besides your own part, you have to know what the other guitar plays, so that you can join in at the right place. There are certain techniques to do that. We divide a piece into sections and learn to recognize when the other player gets to a certain part in the piece where you can join in. We actually practice that in rehearsals by pretending to have a complete memory blackout. One of us plays through the piece and tells the other player randomly when to stop playing. He then has to wait and listen until he recognizes the next agreed joining point before he can continue playing, only to be stopped again a few seconds later.
CG: Has it happened often that you’ve lost your place on stage?
KATONA: I know I should not say this, but unfortunately, it happens all the time! [Laughs.] It is very unlikely, though, for both of us to lose our place at the same time. Even if that happened, we would both just jump to the next agreed part and continue from there. If you do it well, most of the audience will never notice, since one guitar keeps playing, and you can get away with it as long as you don’t play too many wrong notes.
CG: Do you ever compose your own music?
KATONA: We do, although it is a recent development, and we haven’t composed a large volume of works yet. Audiences always seem to appreciate listening to a piece composed by the performer. A few days ago, we played one of my compositions in Spain and I felt that it made the concert a much more personal experience for the audience, as they could not hear that piece performed by anybody else.
CG: When did you begin writing your own music?
KATONA: It all began in 2009, when we were asked to take part in a concert tour where there would be a mixture of pop and classical music, in 42 arenas across Europe. We were invited as the only classical soloists that year.
CG: The “European Night of the Proms” tour.
KATONA: Exactly. We were asked to make arrangements of some well-known pop pieces associated with the guitar and combine them in a medley. Rather than just putting one piece after the other, we wanted to make it more special by incorporating our own musical styles. The first piece was “Sweet Home Alabama” [by the American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd]. I took the rhythm of the song and composed a 17-bar Bach-like intro to it. For an intro, it was rather long, and when it finally turned into “Sweet Home Alabama,” it took the audience completely by surprise. They absolutely loved it! Two Michael Jackson songs and Nirvana’s famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” followed, connected with short Baroque-style compositions. It was a huge success, and although I composed only about 40 bars of the medley, I guess I could say that it was my first composition performed live—and in front of 18,000 people. In any case, it was a promising start and we decided to compose more music.
Perhaps because of my Bach-like first piece, I suppose that my compositional style leans more toward our classical roots, whereas Zoltán tends to write in a more “popular” fashion. In our regular classical concerts, we can easily get away with performing my pieces, but would not dare to play Zoltán’s music, which is why we tend to perform my compositions more frequently than his. [Laughs.]
CG: On that concert tour, you played to half a million people in vast arenas around Europe. What did you use for amplification? I presume it was a wireless system?
KATONA: Yes, but we had been using wireless amplification a long time before the “Night of the Proms” concerts. We used to feel that plugging in the instruments can spoil the illusion of a classical guitar concert for some people. However, it happened often in the past that even hard-core classical guitarists did not always notice when we used wireless amplification. At the “Proms” concerts, we used Ramirez guitars we thought had the best built-in amplification systems. They are truly great instruments! In fact, at those concerts we had to use two wireless systems each—one for the guitar and one for the ear monitors, which was a very new experience for us because we had to play with a click track. It was rather unusual for classical performers, but that was the only way. We were performing in huge arenas with an orchestra that was sometimes nearly 50 meters away. It was very, very difficult to do at the beginning, but you get used to it after a while. In one of the concerts, there was a problem with the computer and our in-ear monitors didn’t work properly. We could only hear the orchestra and the click track, but not our own playing, which was rather scary.
But it was quite an interesting and a very important experience for us in many ways. The biggest challenge was to perform for an audience that had never been to a classical concert before. Luckily, the organizers advised us on what to perform. It was their suggestion that we play something classical in a contemporary version, and to put together a medley of popular songs that the audience would recognize. It was a huge success and it seemed that everybody enjoyed it.
CG: Did the size of these audiences make you nervous at all?
KATONA: Oh, yes, especially at the beginning. I will never forget the experience of walking onstage in front of 18,000 people for the very first time. They were incredibly loud and I thought, “No, I’m not going out there!” [Laughs.] Some friends told us afterwards that we were as white as chalk! But after three or four times you get used to it and then it is no scarier than playing just for 20 people.
After the tour, some of the performances were uploaded on YouTube and we were criticized by some classical guitarists for playing that kind of music in that kind of environment: “What happened to them? They used to be serious classical guitarists.” We still are, but you have to put our experience in perspective. We were asked if we wanted to play in live concerts for half a million people. Even if we played every day for the rest of our lives for an average-size classical audience, we would not be able to reach that many people. It would have been crazy to turn down such a huge chance. Plus, I don’t feel that we had to sacrifice our integrity as classical players.
If anything, that tour has taught us many things: We extended our arranging skills, started to compose, learned to play with a click track using in-ear monitors, and started playing standing up, which we previously did not think was possible at all. Now, we even do it in our classical concerts, and audiences, with the exception of a few classical guitarists, find it to be a welcome addition to our performance style. There are some pieces where moving around actually helps with the interpretation. For example, if you have a solo, you can take a small step forward, just like a singer would do in an opera, and it helps to focus the audience’s attention.
CG: So how do you perform in concerts now—is it a mixture of sitting and standing?
KATONA: Yes, it is. We tend to lively, dramatic, and extroverted pieces standing; and calm, introverted pieces sitting. Not only does it help with the communication, but it also adds an extra dimension and variety to our performances. The only difficulty is that you have to adjust your technique when standing up.
CG: Is it a big adjustment?
KATONA: It certainly is. Some techniques, such as the rest stroke for the fingers, are surprisingly easy when standing up, and others become more difficult because the instrument is simply not as stable as it is when you sit.
CG: So, what’s next?
KATONA: We plan to do more CDs in a non-classical style, on which we will include more of our own compositions. We are also planning a classical album of our own arrangements of opera themes by Mozart, Rossini, Bizet, and Tchaikovsky.