Kalman Halasz would have turned 100 years old this year (2015). He died young on this day in 1972 from pancreatic cancer. Kalman was the assistant director of the Texas Boys’ Choir when I was a member.
Kalman escaped his native Hungary during the 1956 revolt against Soviet occupation. He left Peter (his son), wife, brother, and everything he owned or knew.
As his small group of escapees were sneaking across the frontier into Austria, they were chased by an East German soldier. Kalman knew a zillion or so languages, so he tried to explain … to ask themsoldier not to shoot … only Kalman was really nervous.
“Nicht scheißen,” he screamed. He was staring down the barrel of a Sviet army rifle and didn’t notice he messed up the vowels. What he said was “don’t sh*t” instead of “nicht schießen” (“don’t shoot”). Oops. The soldier was laughing so hard, Kalman and his friend were able to cross in to Austria.
I remember Kalman leading the choir in 4-part solfège (“doe a deer, a female deer”), using hand signals. He coordinated the parts using the position of his hand. Right hand too care of first and second sopranos. Left hand was for first and second altos. It was the Kodály Method, which made perfect sense when you know Kalman and Zoltan Kodály were friends in Hungary.
The man knew everybody in mid-20th century music. He and I bummed around Europe together in 1966. In Vienna, he spent a delightful evening in the apartment of György Ligeti, the composer. His wife served us ice cream, apologizing the it was Thursday (i.e., not Sundae).
They laughed at how Ligeti was banished from pipe organs in Europe. The composer went to record a new piece on a pipe organ in Lübeck (East Germany) that J. S. Bach famously played when he was visiting Dieterich Buxtehude in the early 1700s. So Ligeti is at the organ, only it was a kind of negative song. Weights held down **all** the keys. The music showed which keys to let up. The man was certifiably insane. Ligeti and his music blew out the organ. As it turns out organs that old weren’t designed to handle every key being pressed at the same time. “Who knew?” he said with a devilish grin.
That was in Vienna. We also visited Zsuzsanna, his girlfriend during the yeas he spent in Vienna. We all went to Prater Park, an amusement park. I thought it was bizarre to come all the way to Austria to ride a Tilt-a-Whirl. Then I saw Kalman and Zsuzsanna off in the distance. I was on a ride so they could have some alone time without the kid.
In Bayreuth (Bavaria) Kalman and I went to the,Richard Wagner festival. I think I was being punished because I don’t like opera, and Wagnerian opera is the worst. Kalman went around to the stage door, where he asked for Mr. Böhm. In a few minutes, an older guy appeared. It was Karl Böhm, the famous conductor of Wagnerian operas. They were speaking in German (which I understand but not at a 90 mile an hour gait).
The opera was Meistersinger, a 6-friggin’ hour thing. SIX hours. SIX. It’s so long that they break for SUPPER. Kalman and Böhm took me to a nearby restaurant where they got me completely blasted on Bavarian Beer (Weißbier). I was passed out for the entire second half of the opera (which was a win/win situation for me).
On choir tours, Kalman was pianist. Heaven help you if he caught you singing any note other than the prescribed note on stage. He also was the one who figured out room assignments, using a hand-drawn chart that enforced an evenly. When I caught him changing his chart in his front row bus seat, Kalman explained that he knew one kid was gay, and the chart was putting him with a really hateful prick. He got everyone into rooms with a minimum of teeth gnashing. I don’t know what other criteria he used to override the chart, but I know he quietly tried to maintain harmony on and off the stage.
Pancreatic cancer took Kalman away from us way too soon. I still miss him.