Surprising Expats: Ion Curteanu, Classical Cimbalom Performer

  • 2 Jul 2024 7:53 AM
Surprising Expats: Ion Curteanu, Classical Cimbalom Performer
This is part of a series of in-depth interviews with some of the most surprising members of the expat community in Hungary, written by Marion Merrick.

If you would like to be interviewed as a Surprising Expat, please write with a few details of what you do, to Marion by clicking here.

Ion Curteanu was twelve years old when, playing football with friends in the corridor of the music school where he was a pupil – a plastic water bottle sufficing as an actual football – he heard a sound that made him stop in amazement. What had caught his attention so powerfully was the playing of an instrument he had loved in the folk music his grandmother used to listen to on her radio.

He hurried towards the double set of doors that soundproofed the teaching rooms and crept between them so that he could hear more clearly. “I must have made a noise,” Ion says, “because the teacher opened the door and asked me what I was doing. When I told him I was just listening, he told me to come in.”

The Ciprian Porumbescu Republican Music Lyceum, Moldova

Ion was born in a tiny settlement called Colegiul Agroindustrial Grinăuți-Raia – “You couldn’t call it a village, there wasn’t even a shop, a church or a post office,” he says – almost two hundred and fifty kilometres from Chişinău, the capital of Moldova.

His father was a self-taught musician who played synthesisers for weddings and parties, and who was determined that his son would not follow in his footsteps. Meanwhile his mother, seeing her son’s determination to play, kept watch outside their house until her husband appeared, then warning Ion to stop practising.

He was finally allowed to play the piano accordion which he learnt at the local school. “It was like a normal school, but I needed to walk four kilometres from my house to get there. It was in the next village. And I did this route every day - four kilometres each way, so eight kilometres a day just to go to school. It was for three years. And then the question came: what do you want to do next? And I said I wanted to study the accordion, so they found me an opportunity to go to the capital city, to Chişinău.

“There was a pretty serious entrance exam where they check if you have some potential to learn music. Somehow, I got in, and I told them that I wanted to play the accordion because this was one of the few instruments I knew. But there was
just one teacher of accordion, and he already had too many students, so he couldn't take me to his class. And so I started to play the piano instead.”

Following Ion’s rather unorthodox introduction to the cimbalom in the midst of his football game in the corridor, he began lessons with Valeriu Luță, relegating the piano to his second study. His face lights up as he again recalls his first contact with the instrument: “I was just looking at it. And he [the student] was playing so fast, using the pedals which made the strings move. I couldn't understand how they were moving, and I couldn't see the pattern. It was really impressive for me – you know, it was like magic.”Ion, aged 12, playing the cimbalom

As I take my first proper look inside the instrument, Ion laughs telling me, “It’s chaos! The cimbalom has no logic!” Unlike a harp, for example, the strings are not coloured to identify them, and there are no frets or suchlike to guide you.

Playing the instrument is one thing, but it also needs frequent tuning which Ion does himself. “I hate it!” he says. “At the beginning when it was new, I had to do it two or three times a week to stretch the strings. My one here is from the Czech Republic, a Holak. I wanted something special, and I asked Miroslav Holis [the maker] for some extra strings – he’s a genius!”

When Ion completed his time at the conservatory, he was faced with a limited choice of institutions where he might continue with his studies: he could remain in Chişinău and study at the Academy there, or he could go to Banská Bystrica in southern Slovakia, or to Budapest’s Liszt Academy. He settled on Chişinău, but was soon to regret his choice.

“I got a state scholarship, and I went there for just two weeks. When I came to the first lesson the teacher told me ‘I heard you playing at the music school. You know, you can keep the same programme for the next exam we will have here because it was brilliant, and actually, I don't know what to teach you! If you want, you are free not to come to the classes because I trust you’. It was a total disappointment for me.”

Ion went on to apply to the Liszt Academy in Budapest. “The Hungarians basically made the cimbalom their national instrument,” he explains. “I came to study with Ilona Szeverényi. I’d heard some recordings of her playing and I instantly fell in love with them!” recalls Ion.

But as a non-EU citizen he was barred from applying for scholarships - although he was accepted and successfully completed his first year with Ilona, Ion was then forced to return to Moldova since he lacked the finances to continue. “I went back home and applied for a Romanian passport. I waited for citizenship for two years and later, when I got my passport, I came back. I did the entrance exam again and they accepted me into the second year. And now I didn't have to pay for these studies.”

Ion is now in the middle of his DLA (Doctor of Liberal Arts) degree which involves both writing a dissertation and musical performance. Inspired by both his teacher Ilona, and another Hungarian cimbalom player, Ildikó Vékony, Ion has chosen to write his dissertation about the keyboard Fantasias of C.P.E Bach. His dissertation mentor, Dr. Dóra Pétery, is also proving an outstanding support to Ion.

Ion speaks Romanian, Russian, English and Hungarian, and is a keen traveller. He feels entirely comfortable living in Budapest, “Public transport is fantastic!” he enthuses, “and it was a huge discovery that people love culture so much, they attend concerts, they stand in line to buy tickets, and sometimes they can't even get tickets, and there are a lot of good players coming here to perform. The last concert I went to was with the pianist Grigory Sokolov. He was amazing!”

He is, however, thinking of spending a few years elsewhere – possibly in Paris. “When I was the first or second time in Paris, I was amazed, you know, I saw a lot of people and a lot of cultures in one place. Once I was having a coffee in Paris somewhere, not even the centre, and I was counting how many different languages I could recognise spoken there on the street. It was incredible!”

Ion has not only performed in all Budapest’s main concert venues, but also in Switzerland, France, England and many other European countries. Possibly his favourite performances are those with orchestra, such as the one he played in with Concerto Budapest. He is hoping soon to organise a tour to the U.S. “I think people outside this part of Europe don't really know what a cimbalom is or even what it sounds like. I think, you know, there's a real opportunity there to interest orchestras in Western Europe and go on to play with them.”

Ion playing in the Liszt Academy

Here in Budapest, alongside a varied concert career involving many genres of music from gypsy to classical, and from folk to contemporary, Ion has both piano and cimbalom students. But perhaps more than teaching, and even more than performing, Ion is determined to showcase this most unusual of instruments and to spread an awareness of its unique sound and repertoire to as many people as he possibly can.


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Marion Merrick is author of Now You See It, Now You Don’t and House of Cards and the website Budapest Retro.

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