Katica Illenyi is clearly adept at performing joyous-sounding, high-energy Gypsy music, as will be apparent when she makes six appearances, along with the local Swing de Gitanes trio, between September 6 and 12 as part of the Hot Jazz series. However, the 46-year-old Hungarian violinist has many more strings to her nimble bow.
Illenyi comes from a rich classical background. Her first teacher on violin was her father, Ferenc Illenyi, who played in the Hungarian State Opera House. Her older brother Ferenc is the first violinist with the Houston Symphonic Orchestra, her younger brother Csaba is a violin graduate of the Vienna Academy of Music, and her sister Aniko is first cellist of the Stadtorchester Winterthur in Switzerland. Illenyi also has a penchant for jazz, klezmer and folk music. Add to that a facility with tap dancing, jazz dance and ballet, as well as a grounding in classical and jazz singing, and you have one wellrounded performing artist.
How does manage to accommodate such a disparate range of disciplines? Illenyi is evidently blessed with an abundance of natural gifts, but she says a lot of hard work goes into attaining and maintaining her level of performance, which includes keeping herself in good physical shape.
“My whole life is a constant practice,” she says. “The violin is in first place. It takes up most of my time, many hours of practice a day. Every week I attend voice training, keep fit and dance. These are also an essential part of my life. I haven’t done anything else the past decades but practice violin, sing, dance and do yoga in rotation. I’m always looking for new challenges, something new to learn, always updating my repertoire so I can stand in front of the audience with a new program." Being proficient in several disciplines must inform the way Illenyi approaches her work in each field and, presumably, her initial classical training comes through in her Gypsy work. But, in fact, it is the other way around.
“I would say that it is the Gypsy music that influences my classical music. I let go of myself, and I am not willing to play everything so ‘well mannered’ as classical music would require,” she says.
That on-the-fly mindset comes through in various areas of Illenyi's work, and she feeds off her colleagues on stage, even if the original score does not always call for extraneous exploration.
“Whether I improvise or not depends on what genre I am playing and with whom,” she notes. “My pianist is a jazz musician who also plays classical. His music is a real inspiration to me. That’s why we sometimes wander off in a classical piece. I love freedom. For me, the sense of freedom in music is what gives me the greatest joy. " Illenyi is not only a skillful instrumentalist but also a highly visual performer, and she invests much of her time in making sure she can do the business on stage.
"Keeping fit is one of the most important things. The better you feel physically, the stronger you are, and jazz everything works much better. I work out four or five times a week, and I have been doing yoga for seven years now," she says.
The latter infers that she also takes good care of her respiratory system which, she says, is very much part of her work on stage and behind the scenes.
“Breathing is very important in my musicianship. I always pay attention to my breathing, both at practice and in concert. Proper breathing can help solve many technical difficulties,” she explains.
The violinist says that her vocal skills also contribute to her instrumental approach to new works.
“It helps very much,” she says. “It helps in shaping a piece. For instance, when I am learning a new piece, the first thing I do is hum it to see how I would sing it. And I will not rest until the violin sounds the same way as if I would sing it." How does choreography come into it? “Dancing doesn’t affect my playing, though I am able to dance and play the violin at the same time,” she says. “At my last concert, I performed Ravel's Bolero that way. Playing the violin and dancing at the same time requires concentration and a lot of practice." Then again, singing and fiddling seem to make comfortable bedfellows, particularly in Eastern European music.
“I was a member of the Budapest Klezmer Band for six years," says Illenyi.
"I sang and played the violin with them." She cites the Dutch Di Gojim klezmer sextet from Holland and the worldfamous Klezmatics as two of her favorites. Illenyi has also paid her dues in this sector.
“I like folk music very much, and klezmer is a very exciting genre, as it is a mix of the music of Central-Eastern European nations. It is a unique, emotional, rhythmic, rich kind of music that touches everyone’s hearts, especially artists, whose prime element is freedom, entertainment and improvisation,” she notes.
Klezmer music also brought Illenyi closer to this part of the world.
“Klezmer music helped me meet a new culture and tradition," she says. "I have learned a lot from these experiences. I played the fiddler 150 times in Fiddler on the Roof.”
Although Illenyi has not yet worked with Swing de Gitanes, she says she knows she will be in good hands.
“This will be the first time we will meet in person and perform together,” she says. “We 'met' through YouTube, so all I know about them is what I have seen and heard in their videos. They play the kind of music that I love on a very high level, so I am looking forward to our concerts." Not surprisingly, iconic French Gypsy jazz fiddler Stéphane Grappelli is Illenyi's "number one role model," and the repertoire for her half dozen outings here with Swing de Gitanes will cull from both fields.
"We will play famous and wellknown jazz standards and Gypsy hits. I can hardly wait!" she says.
Katica Illenyi and Swing de Gitanes will kick off their tour in Haifa at Abba Hushi House on September 6 at 9 p.m. (Tel: (04) 822-7850), followed by concerts at the Jerusalem Theater (September 8 at 9 p.m. (02) 560-5755); Zappa Herzliya (September 9; doors open 8:15 p.m., show starts 10 p.m.); Einan Auditorium in Modi’in (September 10 at 9 p.m. (08) 973-7333); and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 11 and 12 (9 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., respectively. (03) 573-3001).
Tickets for all shows can be reserved by calling 1-700-500-039.