The Maestro

László Veres entertains the masses of the Old Pueblo while sharing his love of music.

James Brown calls himself the hardest-working man in show business.

He should meet László Veres.

Veres, a longtime Tucsonan born in Hungary, doesn't enjoy fame that can even approach the Godfather of Soul's. His reputation is purely local. But wherever you turn in classical music and band circles, there he is, swinging a baton.

He heads the Arizona Symphonic Winds, which right now is giving free Saturday night concerts at Udall Park, and the Tucson Pops Orchestra, which is wrapping up its short late-summer season of Sunday-night concerts at Reid Park. For the past 10 years, he's been the music director and conductor of the Foothills Phil, an entry-level community orchestra. Until his retirement in 1999, he spent 30 years teaching band in Southern Arizona, mainly in TUSD, the last 12 years at Tucson High Magnet School. He's done some guest-conducting stints with the Tucson Symphony, spent 18 years conducting the annual Simon Peter Easter pageant and was the founding music director of the Philharmonia Youth Orchestra. Before he started conducting outside of school settings, he spent 16 years as principal clarinetist with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

Let's see James Brown top that. Puhlease!

OK, so at age 65, it's a little late for Veres to start practicing Brown's trademark splits, but Veres managed a dramatic split of his own when he was 19.

It was 1956. Soviet tanks were rolling through Budapest to quell a widespread uprising and were rounding up university-age Hungarians, who were held largely responsible for the revolt. Veres wasn't a revolutionary, but his father feared he'd be arrested with everyone else, so he had Veres hustled across the border to Austria with a handful of other refugees one cold November night.

Before long, the entire Veres family was living in the United States. Although he was not yet eligible for citizenship, László was drafted and sent to play clarinet in the band at Fort Huachuca. After his discharge, Veres earned a music degree from the UA, began his career as a band instructor and got himself appointed to the Tucson Symphony at age 30.

Veres details these and many other adventures in his new autobiography, No Regrets. The book is privately published, and Veres isn't making a huge effort to market it, although fans can obtain it at Pops and Symphonic Winds concerts.

"I wasn't going to show this to anybody else until I was talked into it," Veres said recently, pecking at a healthful salad topped with tuna slices. Veres has diligently restricted his diet since suffering a heart attack 15 years ago, and one of the few places he eats out is his son Michael's elegant Italian restaurant in Oro Valley, Cibar'a. Michael put this particular salad on the menu especially for his father, and named it after him: the "Maestro."

"I've been asked for so many years to write something like this, but I don't really push it," he said. "I wrote it for my two (youngest) boys. I want them to know something about their heritage."

That heritage is, first of all, Hungarian. (Veres still speaks English with a noticeable accent, while people in Budapest tell him that his Hungarian hasn't been at all affected by more than 40 years in America.) More generally, it's a heritage that involves a strong work ethic, as you might guess from Veres' résumé.

"My father was tough, but I loved him to death," he said. "I have no regrets about my upbringing and the difficulties we had." Today, Veres has no sympathy for kids who expect overnight mastery of the saxophone and aren't willing to put in months of practice just to become barely competent.

Asked how he defines himself, Veres said without hesitation, "As an American." And professionally? "I'm an educator. What else could I be after 30-plus years of it? But on the side, I can say I'm an entertainer." Why not use the word "musician"? "I thought I was an accomplished clarinetist, back when I was still playing all the time. I had good schooling and I worked hard. But up on the podium, I'm not in the same class with these other guys who conduct. But I think I do have a gift to excite musicians to play their instruments. And I have an incredible love of music, and I think the audience can feel that, and that helps them get excited about music, too."

What's not exciting these days is the level of financial donations to the Tucson Pops Orchestra. "It costs us $6,000-$8,000 per concert just for musicians, plus the crew, the cops, the shuttle and all the rest," Veres said. "The city mostly funds the spring cycle, but we need corporate funding for the fall, and people aren't giving as much as they used to." Consequently, this month's schedule has been cut to three concerts instead of the usual four.

The Symphonic Winds, on the other hand, is a volunteer organization that operates all through the year on a shoestring budget. With its mixture of professionals and amateurs, the band doesn't consistently play at the level of the Tucson Pops, but otherwise, the ensembles are similar. They both play a mix of overtures, Broadway and movie themes, and pieces featuring local soloists. Both play to big crowds, although the Pops Orchestra, with its larger space, accommodates a somewhat larger audience--usually 6,000-8,000 people, up to 12,000 on a holiday weekend.

All the concerts are free and attract people who can't afford tickets to events at the UA or TCC. "This is their only entertainment, and it's a tremendous responsibility for me," Veres said. "But it's part of my mission, and I don't have any plans to retire. I say to my wife, 'As soon as I lose my excitement on the podium, tell me, and that's when I'm off. As soon as I lose my love of music, get me out, because it won't be good for anybody anymore.'"

As a man who survived both the abortive Hungarian Revolution and 30 years in TUSD, Veres isn't likely to be driven off the bandstand anytime soon.