*This is another article I wrote for my journalism class that I never had the chance to publish. I really enjoyed interviewing Professor Joseph Huszti because he reminded of how much I loved music and playing the piano. He is one of the most charismatic people that I have had the pleasure of interviewing. Originally written 11 June 2009.*
The halls of the UC Irvine Art Department ring with sounds of crescendoing shouts. It sounds like a fight has erupted within one of the practice rooms. Opening the double doors to one of the rehearsal rooms uncovers the source of the shouts. It is Joseph Huszti directing his choir in a semicircle. Today they must master Brahms.
The seventy-three year-old Huszti recently celebrated his fiftieth year of conducting. Thirty-two of those years were spent directing at the University of California Irvine. Huszti is responsible for turning UC Irvine’s choir into one of the most prestigious choirs in the nation. He and his choir have been invited to events such as the International Musical Eisteddfod in Llangollen, Wales and Béla Bartok International Choral Competition in Debrecen, Hungary. The choir has also performed in over twenty-five cities around the world including Westminster, Tokyo, Seoul, and Budapest.
From a very young age, Huszti knew that music was what he wanted to pursue for the rest of his life. He found his inspiration from his parents, Joseph Maynard and Rose Farkas Huszti, who immigrated form Hungary to Lorain, Ohio. They encouraged his passion for music and supported his dream to one day teach music. It was in Loraine that Huszti learned to play the violin at the age of five and conducted his first orchestra when he was ten years old.
“During the summer, I was in a music program. The first piece I ever conducted was Beethoven’s Second Symphony. I had parents that were positive, encouraging, and ‘cracked the whip.’”
After graduating from Loraine High School in 1954, Huszti attended Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois. Huszti was fortunate enough to be taught by Robert Todd Duncan, famous for his performance in George Gershwin’s, Porgy and Bess. Huszti graduated with a degree in choral conducting and viola from Northwestern University.
After obtaining his degrees, Huszti taught at many colleges, including Bakersfield College and the University of Delaware, before settling down at UC Irvine. Teaching was a logical thing for Huszti. Music brought him joy and meaning in his life and he wanted to spread it. He became a music missionary.
Though Huszti was invited to become part of the UC Irvine faculty in 1965 when then university was just beginning to open its doors to students, he rejected his offer because they only offered him a position as an assistant director. He would not compromise. He wanted to have his own choir, his own rules.
Huszti was eventually offered a job again in 1977 by UC Irvine and this time he would have his own department. He looked to his mentor, Todd Duncan for a letter of reference. Duncan wrote the letter. Huszti got the job immediately.
“What I liked about California was that you could do basically what you wanted to do. I wanted to create my own department and create my own research. I wanted to teach music my own way.”
On arriving at John Wayne Airport in 1977, Huszti decided to take a cab to the school. He found a cab outside the luggage return. He asked the driver to take him to UC Irvine. The cab driver did not know where UC Irvine was.
“Is that in Fullerton?” asked the cab driver. Eventually, the driver had to call the cab company to get directions to UC Irvine, which is just one mile away.
“When I first came to UC Irvine, it wasn’t renown yet. The faculty hadn’t made their mark yet and the students didn’t have a chance to make their mark yet,” recalls Huszti.
Thirty-two years later, Huszti has made himself a reputation and has no intention of retiring. He is still conducting his private all men choir, the Men in Blaque. Founded by Huszti in 1997, the Men in Blaque have produced four albums and are still active at UC Irvine. Their biggest accomplishment was in July 2006 when the Men in Blaque were awarded two silver medals and a gold certificate when competing with over 400 choirs in the Choral Olympics in Xiamen, China.
Huszti has become a mentor for his students in choir. He now follows in the footsteps of his musical mentors when he was still a young musician. He instills in his students a love for music and a passion for song. In return, his students reaffirm his love for music.
“What drew me to UC Irvine was the fact that the kids here are so well rounded. Kids come from all different backgrounds and majors. They bring their own unique perspective to the choir. I feel like I’m teaching at a completely different school every ten or so years.”
What makes Huszti a beloved mentor to many of his students is the fact that he has and unconditional faith in them and their talents.
“I believe that anyone can sing. I don’t like it when people say that they’re not good at singing because they’re ‘tone deaf’ or just not good at it. I believe anyone can sing.”
Huszti’s philosophy that anyone can sing is apparent when observing his students during choir practice. Seventy-five percent of them are not music majors and yet are drawn to choir and music.
“I think that ICS kids, chemistry majors all need to have music. I love having them around. I think they’re interesting people because they bring their own unique perspective to the music.”
Many UC Irvine students join choir simply as an outlet for their stress from other classes and because there is something universally appealing about music.
Sarah Oatman, a sophomore majoring in English, is in the majority of choir students that are non-music majors.
“I believe that anyone can sing but there’s a lot that us non-music majors can improve on. Professor Huszti allows us to stay competitive with those who have formal training. I also think the reason why there are so many non-music majors is because choir is fun and not a requirement. Music majors seem less happy to be here because they’re required to be here.”
Elizabeth Lopez, a sophomore majoring in History believes firmly in Huszti’s philosophy that anyone can sing. She repeats one of Huszti’s mantras about the innate need for music during infancy.
“We make sounds and enjoy them in our infancy, much earlier than we are capable of talking. Singing is an important part of every culture on the planet. I can’t name [a culture] where song and ritual weren’t intertwined at one point. I think music is essential because it encompasses so much of humanity.”
Perhaps there is no better example of Huszti’s philosophy than Frederick Reines. Reines was a professor teaching at UC Irvine and later became famous for discovering the neutrino, an elementary particle that travels close to the speed of light and has no electrical charge. In 1995, Reines and his colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in discovering the neutrino. What most people do not know is that Reines had an excellent, booming, and operatic voice.
“Fred was the first person to audition for me when I came to UC Irvine. He was a very good operatic singer and sang in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Shaw while he was doing his work on the neutrino. He was good enough to have had a career as a singer had he decided to do so.”
Huszti’s philosophy and willingness to teach any student of any background shows his belief that there is something universal about music. He repeats his mantra about music and infancy again but proves it with his piano.
“The first humans probably communicated through music and sounds before they could talk. Right away, a baby coos and sighs in a descending minor third.”
Huszti plays a minor third chord progression on the worn, yellowing Yamaha piano in his office.
“Ooooh….Ahhhh…,” mimics Huszti. “A descending minor third is one of satisfaction. An ascending minor third is more of an asking or wanting something. It’s a fascinating human phenomenon in all cultures. The basic connection is one of sound and music.”
During one of his rehearsals, his choir gathers around him in a semi-circle in a white and gray room. The atmosphere is relaxed. A few students wearing flip-flops take them off and stand barefoot on the cool, linoleum floor. At the center of the room is a battered, black grand piano. Its paint is wearing off, revealing the wooden flesh beneath. The two girl accompanists begin to play Brahms on the same grand piano. The choir begins to sing with Huszti at the helm, shouting his orders.
“Third bar at the top of the page! I still don’t hear the sopranos! Give me a fist! We have so many tools to make music!”
With sheet music in his left hand, Huszti makes a fist with his right and punches through the air.
“Double T! Double M!” says Huszti, cutting the air with his fist. Huszti continues to sing loudly with his choir. He sings so loudly that his voice begins to crack and stray off key.
Huszti encourages his sopranos.
“Nice women! Good women!”
Huszti wears a collared shirt with colorful fishes in a rectangular pattern. His glasses, round and chestnut colored, show signs of wear. His khaki pants are just short of reach barely covering the tops of his white and blue New Balance shoes. On his left hand is a watch with a white, round face. On the same hand is a simple, classic gold wedding band.
The only thing that Huszti has dedicated his life to as much as his music is his wife, Melinda.
“When we met, it was just a casual ‘date.’ It was ‘love at first sight,’ even though I didn’t believe in that! She was just a great person to be with. She was fun, intelligent, cute and we shared the same values. We both had strong family backgrounds and were both very independent. Still, we provided strong support for each other. Our ability to communicate and share in ideas and change as we matured drew me to her.”
Huszti has been married to Melinda for fifty-three years. She still calls him “Honey” on the phone and asks him when he’ll be home for dinner. They have a daughter named Heather. She obtained her BA in psychology at UCI and went on to receive her Ph. D in clinical psychology from Texas Tech University. Today she is the director of clinical studies at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Though Melinda and Heather do not have careers in music, they both still love and respect Huszti’s devotion to music.
On a typical day, Huszti is up at dawn and already planning the schedule for his rehearsals throughout the day. He teaches six days a week and is in charge of seven classes at UCI. It is not uncommon for Huszti to spend sixty to seventy hours a week teaching and conducting. When Huszti finds time to relax, he likes to watch basketball and baseball. As a local of Orange County, his favorite basketball team is the Lakers and his favorite baseball team is the Indians. Even when it is time to relax and get away from the music, it follows him.
“The physical, intellectual and emotional challenges [between music and sports] are very similar. I could just as easily become a coach of sports instead of a music coach.”
Huszti is and always will be a teacher and a mentor. The door to his office is always open. Students come by for a quick chat or to seek advice about music or anything else on their minds.
“I have a student here that has a beautiful voice but he doesn’t know how to read music! I can’t teach you how to read music in six weeks but I can teach you to sing in six weeks.”
The student is nervous but Huszti encourages him. He tells his student to sit down at the piano and play something familiar. He plays beautifully but without technique. The student hears the notes being played but does not feel them.
“You play beautifully! Now I just need to teach you how to read music!”
Huszti turns to the young reporter in the room and tells him, “Give me six weeks. I can teach you to sing.”