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Wednesday November 10, 2010

She carried her violin across the border to escape the communists

Hungarian virtuoso walked to Austria when the Russians invaded to quash the 1956 uprising

Special to The Globe and Mail

Marta Hidy was an acclaimed violinist in Hungary who was being groomed by the state as a star in 1956 when Communist tanks rolled into Budapest to suppress a student uprising. She and her first husband, Antal Dvorak, a trombonist and descendant of the famed composer, risked everything to flee the country.

"The revolution was the greatest event of my life," Hidy once told a reporter. "But I really felt I had already lost my country in 1945, when I was 17 and the Russians first came in after the Second World War." With only her violin and her concert gown tucked under her arm, she and her husband set out on New Year's Eve with their two children and walked through a snowstorm across the border into Austria. In Vienna they were offered a visa to Canada, but she was warned that she would find Canada a culturally barren place.

"If that's the case, I will bring culture to them," she declared. "At least in Canada, there, they have the air of freedom I can breathe."

Not only did Hidy enhance her reputation internationally as a concert violinist in her adopted country, but she went on to become a concertmaster and an assistant conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic as well as a founding professor of McMaster University's faculty of music.

She died of cancer in Hamilton on Nov. 4, 54 years to the day that the Russians invaded Hungary.

"She was a courageous woman, a natural musician with flair, the singular professional musician around whom the Hamilton Philharmonic was built," said the orchestra's former conductor, Boris Brott. "She made a huge contribution to the community through her artistic expression."

Hidy, an economist's daughter, was born in Budapest on Jan. 11, 1927. Her mother played the violin and enrolled her in the Budapest Music Academy when she was 6. She continued her studies at the Franz Liszt Academy, where at 16 she won a competition as the academy's outstanding violinist.

She led a prize-winning string quartet in the 1950 Prague International Chamber Music Competition and for four years before the revolution was recognized by the state as Hungary's representative in Soviet Bloc competitions.

In October, 1956, she was teaching at the conservatory in Debrecen when the revolution began. She returned to Budapest after the uprising to discover "dead bodies and blood" in the streets. Among 40,000 Hungarian émigrés who were given visas to Canada, she and her family settled in Winnipeg in 1957.

She made her Toronto debut in 1962, established the Hidy String Quartet - which recorded works by Shostakovich at the Canadian pavilion at Expo 67 - and was hired by the CBC as concertmaster of the network's Winnipeg orchestra.

In 1964 she left Winnipeg to accept a position as assistant conductor of the Hamilton Philharmonic and began teaching violin and chamber music at McMaster University.

"She was very direct, but at the same time very sensitive. She had a huge enthusiasm for just about everything," said pianist Ken Gee, director of Guelph's Musicfest and a former classical music critic for the Hamilton Spectator. "She knew her stuff, but she wasn't doctrinaire, she was always learning."

In 1973, Hidy formed a trio with Arthur Ozolins and Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi, which gave recitals throughout Ontario, and she also put together the Ensemble Sir Ernest MacMillan and Trio Canada, the latter with cellist Zdenek Konicek and pianist Valerie Tryon.

She conducted the Chamber Players in Toronto, appeared as a concert soloist with symphony orchestras in Great Britain, New Zealand, Hungary, Japan, China, and the United States. The London Sunday Times critic proclaimed her 1972 performance of Debussy with the pianist Geoffrey Parsons, as "one of the most distinguished I have ever heard."

She retired from McMaster in 1991, and gave her last recital seven years ago, although she organized a 50th anniversary concert in Hamilton in 2006 to commemorate the Hungarian revolution. The university also set up a chamber music series in her name, Marta Hidy and Friends. The Hungarian government awarded her the Republic's Medal of Honour in 1993.

"After she retired, she fell in love with golf in Florida," said her son John. "Growing up in Hungary she was banned by the state from playing sport for fear she would injure her arm. Her approach to the game was the same as her approach to music, she looked at it mechanically and scientifically, and considered the setup from every angle. She took the golf very, very seriously."

Her first husband died in 1970. Her marriage to Otto Demjen, a chartered accountant, wasn't as durable. She leaves her daughter Marta and son John, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. The funeral will be held Friday at St. Stephen's Hungarian Roman Catholic Church in Hamilton and a memorial concert is being planned.

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