Are Hungarian audiences ill-mannered?
The concert got off to a bad start. Inspired as he was, Iván Fischer was just about to cue the orchestra in when a mobile rang in the audience. I could of course say, “gosh, how ill-mannered Hungarian audiences are”. But boorishness is thriving all around Europe. This was just an example. But the icing on the cake was when the partisans of the audience had a hearty laugh at this mobile phone intermezzo. Well, this really set me off, and left its mark on the whole performance. Then came the wave of coughs. I mourned Mahler’s No. 9 as if it was a relative lost in an accident. (figaro.postr.hu)
Müpa (Palace of Arts) organised Mahler Days. A photo exhibition presenting the composer’s time in Budapest was promised, but it turned out to be a very weak one as none of the pictures featured Mahler himself, and the ones which did only showed his statue. Never mind. I quickly got over it.
Viva la musica! Long live music! It would live if they let it live. However, the audience on Friday night made a decision like a wicked Caesar in a Roman arena did: thumbs down. Although the audience were boorish, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra stood firm. After the ominous mobile phone incident and the first movement, the conductor left the stage and using a microphone asked the respected audience to smother their coughs during the quiet parts. As Symphony No. 9 is rather rich in soft sections.
However, the audience seemed unstoppable in clearing their throats, as if their GP was moving a stethoscope on their backs encouraging them to cough. Or things fell on the floor, clickety-click, clack-clack, at the most unexpected moments, right in the middle of the softest piano sections.
If I had been the conductor, chances are I would have sent the audience home to consult their physician or pharmacist. Of course I know that such infernal waves of coughing have nothing to do with current viruses. It’s pure psychology. The audience simply got tense because they probably did not or did not want to understand Mahler’s 9th properly. The concert-goer sitting right next to me was so apparently bored as if he had been sunbathing in Siófok at Lake Balaton in a scorching hot day in the middle of July. The person behind me whispered to their companion that they needed to get used to this sort of music. The companion readily agreed. Why didn’t they go to the cinema instead?
Mahler’s 9th is not music intended for babies, it is the last thing an artist, exhausted and tired of cardiac deficiency, had to say. It is almost as if the composer had predicted his death and sent a message from the other side… As if we were about to wake up from a clinical death. At the very beginning there seemed to be two ship hooters signalling to one another. Then a waltz imbued into a sigh rejoined the puffery of the brasses. The entire first movement felt like cold and hot showers running on our skin. The BFO broke through the stirring energy fields of contradictions. This sort of duality sent waves through the entire symphony.
At the very end of the last movement, when the violins and violas kept replying to each other breaking our hearts, as Bernstein put it, we get as close to death as the mortal man would ever be able to experience in any other piece of art. Being close to death is uncomfortable. Added to that, as if Iván Fischer was rapping the audience’s knuckles, he took the final rhythms so slow that coughs were trapped inside the audience, suddenly no one dropped anything at all and everyone was petrified, listening to their heartbeat fail.
Iván Fischer triumphed over his audience. The person sitting next to me was paralysed by awe, he rolled up his sunbathing mat and had no idea whether he would catch the last high-speed train to Budapest. When he embarked on his trip to Siófok in the morning, he had no idea that this would be his last time bathing.
During the last few bars the audience measured up to the task. They finally understood that their silence and breath were part of the artistic interpretation; that the orchestra’s play was not some sort of a service. We are the orchestra.