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One of the world’s most celebrated orchestras performed a free concert in the village of Cserdi for about 200 children. For most, it was their first live concert experience. We accompanied the Festival Orchestra to the village made famous by its mayor’s promises to ‘eliminate assholes’. (Report by István Balla, hvg.hu)

“The Festival Orchestra in Cserdi is as if Madonna were to perform in Pécs. Who would believe that Madonna was performing in Pécs? Who would believe that the Festival Orchestra is performing in Cserdi” – said the enthusiastic László Bogdán, father of the “Cserdi miracle” programme, before the concert.  He arrived out of breath, having given a presentation to the mayor’s conference about his strange, divisive, yet undisputedly effective methods (e.g. the asshole elimination programme).

As he recalled, his phone rang a few weeks ago and a lady tried to convince him that if they wanted, the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) would come to Cserdi to perform a free concert for the children of the village. He didn’t believe it. “I told her, you must be joking, this is a farce, right?” I may be a Gypsy, but I’m well aware that the Festival Orchestra’s music is not exactly tailor-made for the Cserdi Community Centre. People would rather imagine [Gypsy pop musicians] Kis Grófo or Guszti Bódi appearing here.”

It is indeed a strange list of venues: the Philharmonie de Paris, the Royal Albert Hall, the Scala in Milan, Carnegie Hall and the Cserdi Community Centre.

Connecting People

The most important goal of the BFO – as the managing director told us previously – is to bring music closer to the people. This applies equally whether the concerts take place on the world’s grandest stages or in Hungary’s abandoned synagogues and provincial churches, schools and nursing homes, or – like last week – for Cocoa Concerts in Mindszent and Cserdi.

“Music can connect people. Our message is integration. This is, of course, also a political message which we communicate through music” explained Stefan Englert.

“Hungary still has a lot to learn about civil courage and democracy” thinks Music Director Iván Fischer. “Many people simply let things happen, they are inactive witnesses to events, completely passive. In contrast, there are only a handful of people who say this is our country, where my compatriots and I decide how things should be run. Yet this is a democracy. Democracy is about being active, and every public figure should be a role model for that. This is our cause, our country, let’s take our fate into our own hands.”

A Challenge for the Musicians

The BFO organises Community Weeks several times a year, for which orchestra members can apply to play solos, duets or other chamber works. Violinist Levente Szabó said they cherish these opportunities and there is always a surplus of applicants; Iván Fischer has the final say regarding the programme. On these occasions, the Festival Orchestra members take a coach to the venues to give the chamber concerts.

According to Szabó, the musicians find the grateful children are always extremely inspiring. Moreover, it is also a great professional challenge to prepare for these concerts. Learning the chamber pieces specifically arranged for such events is a whole different ball game to practising their symphony orchestra parts. “I think the very best concerts should be performed for children.”

Gypsy-style Lecsó, Bean Soup

The BFO coach arrived at the town hall more than two hours before the concerts started at 2 pm. The mayor’s ravings about what this event meant for the village of 400 weren’t empty words. The artists were greeted by the local women with gypsy-style lecsó, cabbage-and-bean soup, roast meat, strudel and coffee.

In the meanwhile, we had time to take a look around and talk with the people of Cserdi. Whenever we asked a question it was obvious that the mayor – who was giving a presentation at a conference and had not arrived yet – is unconditionally trusted and revered. “When we first elected him, his first act as mayor was to order the bars to be removed from the windows. There were many thefts before, today there are practically none.” The “Miracle of Cserdi” has sparked a plethora of articles, with László Bogdán becoming something of media star.

We could not really make up our minds about the notes posted on the walls all around the office on which – similar to how primary school teachers put up kids’ work – were written the opinions of community workers regarding appropriate behaviour, good work ethics etc. It is strange to see this among grown-ups. It is just as strange that people who show up late for (community) work have to read Winnie-the-Pooh as a punishment. (“This is for real” – says Bogdán, seeing our incomprehension.)

The locals, however, see nothing wrong with these educational measures. And anyway “anyone can find work here if they want to” is their final reasoning. It is also significant that Bogdán is always at the forefront of any available work. This is believed to be the basis of their respect.

In any case, the musicians had already been convinced by the lecsó and the accounts of the locals. After the concert, harpist Ágnes Polónyi wrote in the guestbook that “both Cserdi and the Festival Orchestra are islands – it would be great if Hungary had an archipelago of them.”

Everybody off to School

There is no school in the village; children are taken to the neighbouring village by bus. Every one of the 105 school-aged children attend the school at Bükkösd, something the mayor personally oversaw for a long time. Until the children got back, the musicians practised in the community centre. There is a huge banner on the wall: “Hungary is not black or white, many colours make the nation beautiful.” The first school bus arrived around half past one, but later more groups of children – including from neighbouring villages – made their way into the hall.

The early birds were lucky because they could have a close look at, and even try out, the instruments. The harp turned out to be the most popular.

This is no Miracle

In the meantime, the obviously highly-enthusiastic mayor arrived. “You think I want to be more than a dry leaf? I’m a simple Gypsy kid, one who got to third grade at primary school and who still falls to his knees on hearing the national anthem. That’s who I am,” he defined himself, while out on the street arranging to clear the main road. He is an experienced and overwhelming interview subject – and something of a revelation.

“There is no such thing as the Cserdi miracle,” he says. “You know what’s a miracle? That there is no envy in my soul.” According to him this is all that was needed to turn Cserdi into a liveable place in only a few years. A place where everyone works, children go to school, where they grow enough potatoes to be able to donate to those in need. Moreover, a pickling facility will be opening soon to enable them to produce market-worthy products from the vegetables they grow. The Lasipe (gypsy for benevolence) factory will produce gypsy-style lecsó, gypsy-style preserves and gypsy-style pickles.

He emphasises that “we need to eliminate the complicity and prejudice inherent in our souls.” When we ask what he means by this exactly, we get the cryptic response “we are only talking about those important people who turn up. We don’t mean any harm to those who don’t.”

He hastily gives a speech about “the migrant problem that needs to be solved at its roots, instead of broadcasting back and forth to each other.” He adds “as a Gypsy I am an immigrant, the question is whether I’m considered a problem or a task. If I am a task then this is a happy world, if I am considered a problem then I need to run.”

Bogdán doesn’t really allow us to interrupt his trains of thought with questions, but by this time most of the children had arrived anyway, and a few dozen adults too. The programme got underway – naturally with him opening the concert.

Mozart and Cocoa

The children sat on the ground while they listened to the concert and the ‘showman’, host András Hábetler. The opera singer won the affection of the 200 children who shouted ‘bravo’ and applauded loudly between numbers. These activities were indeed called for; even children with concert experience would find it difficult to sit through a concert of Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini lasting more than an hour.

The last piece, Berlioz’s Mosgrad Express for percussion and noisy devices, was the absolute favourite. Every child we asked said this was the best. Of course, it’s a flashy percussion piece where the drummers have the chance to joke about.

After the concert every child received a mug of hot chocolate, and could even take the mug with the BFO logo home with them. Bogdán asked for one last photo with the musicians in front of the recently inaugurated Holocaust wall. The artists received gifts of gypsy-style jams.

As a farewell, the mayor shouted after me, “You know what’s a miracle? That this concert came to pass.”