CANADA

From Budapest with more than love

Alive and well and hiding in Toronto

Barbara Amiel December 15 1980
CANADA

From Budapest with more than love

Alive and well and hiding in Toronto

Barbara Amiel December 15 1980

From Budapest with more than love

CANADA

Alive and well and hiding in Toronto

Barbara Amiel

The caller spoke in Hungarian, saying only that his name was Tom. “Let me give you some friendly advice,” he whispered into the phone. “Don’t stay in Canada. You’ll only be deported.” His listeners, a stylish blonde woman and her dark-haired male companion, shivered. They couldn’t be sure who the caller was or how he had found their number. The next day, they changed their hideout.

The Hungarian embassy official who telephoned the CBC last week was more straightforward. “Do you know where we can get in touch with two of our nationals?” he asked. “They were supposed to be back in Hungary on Nov.

18.” But the CBC knew nothing about Hungarian nationals—only that its second co-production with Magyar Television (MTV) was going off without a hitch. The 60-minute TV biography of the great modern Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, directed by Curtis Davis and featuring the Detroit Symphony’s Antal Dorati guest-conducting the Hungarian Radio-Television Symphony Orchestra, was “in the can” ready to be aired in March, 1981, the centenary of Bartók’s birth. However, Maclean's has learned, the Air France jet that took off from Toronto for Budapest on Nov. 17 carried back only half of the MTV team. The senior members, Janos Vecsernyés, 50, and Andrea Fellner, 42, had gone underground in Toronto.

The defectors had wanted it quiet. Fellner, chief editor of MTV’s department of serious music, and Vecsernyés, associate program director ranked No. 3 in the hierarchy of Hungarian television, did not wish to embarrass their Canadian partners. In an exclusive interview with Maclean's last week, Vecsernyés explained: “We regarded it a private matter. We didn’t make a move until the show was finished and officially handed over to the CBC.”

It was not only to keep the CBC from embarrassment, of course, that Vecsernyés and Fellner had to go through their cloak-and-dagger act. “You can’t breathe a word,” Vecsernyés says. “Not just to protect yourself, but to protect your family and friends. In Hungary, to know about a would-be defector is guilty knowledge, the same as aiding and abetting.” On Nov. 18, even Fellner’s mother and Vecsernyés’ 22-yearold son were waiting for the Air France jet to land at the Budapest airport. “I don’t know exactly what they’d do to us if they got us back,” Vecsernyés says, “but I’d rather not find out.” He won’t have to—unless Canada turns down the landed-immigrant status for which he and Fellner have applied.

Vecsernyés and Fellner represent a new breed of defectors: their motivation is not, strictly speaking, political or even economic. As high-ranking officials of Hungary’s television industry, they belonged to the privileged classes of the People’s Republic. Though it took more than a year’s income and then a two-year wait for delivery, by the mid1970s they were each proud owners of a Lada car—his an 1800 model, hers a more modest 1300. But it was precisely their status as high-achievers, socialiststyle, that got Vecsernyés and Fellner into trouble.

CBC Radio has evidently not been the only battleground in the past decade between the elitists and the populists in broadcast programming. The same fight raged in the halls of Hungarian television, with Fellner and Vecsernyés throwing in their lot with the populists. “We wanted to do shows that viewers would turn to in great numbers,” Fellner says—and Hungarian viewers did switch, apparently in an unprecedented way, to the Vecsernyés and Fellner duo’s televised series of international competitions between serious musicians. The reason was not only the Hungarian public’s love for long-hair music. The international competitions, with young pianists, singers and conductors invited from all over the world, opened Hungary’s windows a little wider to the West. The competition juries—the last one, in May, 1980, under the honorary chairmanship of Herbert von Karajan—included such stellar names as Italy’s Carlo Zecchi and Willi Boskowsky of the Vienna Philharmonic and launched, among others, the careers of Hungarian pianist Zoltán Koscis, Czech violinist Vaclav Hudecek and Japanese conductor Kobayashi KenIchiro, today all rising stars of the European concert circuit.

Beating the drum for young raw talent in the clubby silence of Hungary’s musical establishment was not all the problem for Vecsernyés and Fellner. Their unforgivable sin was to introduce

the idea of a special prize in each competition: the popular vote of the audience itself. As a result, almost 80,000 Hungarians, long denied the satisfaction of a secret ballot, swarmed to boxes set up in front of the Budapest Opera and Academy of Music. Many came from the country, on motorbikes and in buses, creating a traffic jam. For the first time in more than a quarter of a century, the people could exercise their franchise—if only to elect the best conductor of Till Eulenspiegel or Beethoven’s Fifth. (The people’s choice, incidentally, in the 1977 conductor competition happened to be a Canadian: Uri Mayer, now associate conductor of the Montreal Symphony.)

The elitists rallied and—unlike in CBC Radio—won the day. Charging Vecsernyés and Fellner with high costs and turning the sacred precincts of academic music into a circus, they put an end to international competitions. “They shunted Andrea aside,” Vecsernyés says, “and kicked me upstairs to the associate director’s chair.” The two would never be allowed to touch music programming again and, state broadcasting being a monopoly, would have no alternate networks or independent producers to provide an outlet for their passion.

In the case of Andrea and Janos, the passion was not only for star-making: it was also for each other. Except Vecsernyés was married and, in spite of their long and public affair, they could never live together. “All our friends knew about us,” Vecsernyés says, “and eventually I would have got a divorce anyway.” But the housing shortage alone makes trading spouses a cumbersome task in the Hungarian People’s Republic. In 1975, Fellner renovated the apartment in which she lived at the cost of twice her annual income. In 1979, the district planning committee denied her a permit to continue living in it, ruling that it was too big for her.

It was the CBC’s decision to co-produce the Bartók program with MTV and Curtis Davis that finally facilitated the romance. “I guess it’s fitting,” Vecsernyés says. “When Bartók escaped to New York in 1940, he even lost his suitcase on the way. We managed to hang on to ours. They’re mostly empty, but our heads are full.” For its seven-million-forint (about $350,000) investment, Hungary loses two full-headed programmers but gains East European distribution to the 60-minute show. Vecsernyés and Fellner lose everything, Lada cars included, but gain each other. Also, perhaps, when their English improves, the opportunity to buck a new establishment. “There is a difference, I think,” Vecsernyés says. “In the West, even the establishment is not the only game in town.”