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Budapest Festival Orchestra

A small piece of Hungary came to Chicago to show off what they have, and although the group that came was smaller than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, their performance blew the audience to their feet. Bravo, bravo!

Conducted by Iván Fischer, one of the founders of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, tonight’s concert was a mixture of Hungarian, Russian, and Austrian music. And while others were out seeking other kinds of treats, we had some of our own right here at the Orchestra Hall, and they were sweeter and more tragic than any candy. (No, I’m not talking about the large Tootsie Rolls that were available at tonight’s concert.)

The first piece they placed was Franz Schubert’s overture to The Magic Harp (Rosamunde). A very light-hearted piece that was reminiscent of The Blue Danube, with lilting triplets and very concordant harmonies. Despite the opera’s namesake, there were no harp solos in the overture, but the cheeriness of the strings was more than enough to make it magical, like stepping into a fairyland. It was also lovely to see some unspoken dialogue – like smiles and eye contact – going on between several musicians, especially between the Concertmaster (Violetta Eckhart) and her music sheet ‘partner’ (another first violinist).

Next, they played Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, another gem. In this piece, you could really hear the influence of Mozart’s music in Schubert’s work. I especially enjoyed the allegro and the menuetto movements, where the symphony opened with music that reminded me of cartoon music (in the best possible sense!). It was like watching a good Tom and Jerry cartoon, where there are lively parts, yet scattered in between were more mournful and slow shadows of a minor key, and sinister, more ‘dangerous’ sounds that build suspense. The andante con moto movement was more gentle, slower yet more relaxing and had a very ‘kind’ main melody theme that was very easy on the ears. The menuetto, in contrast, was more tumultuous, yet livelier in the way that made it seem like Schubert just couldn’t stay away from the major keys for too long. The symphony ended with the allegro vivace, and like the music term, was very quick, almost like a violent rush of notes; of scales and arpeggios that sounded quite thunderous. But it quickly morphs back to a gentle, major melody that follows the first movement’s theme, as if describing the calm that comes after a storm. Overall, the piece was very satisfying, and played with just the right amount of passion by the BFO.

After the intermission came something definitely from the deepest part of Hungarian music history – Béla Bartók’s Hungarian Peasant Songs, which was much more discordant than Schubert’s works. As a result, the music was more haunting, with scattered accidentals and clashing notes. It was a more wild, freeform kind of music which reflects the Hungarian language, yet despite this I could still hear a little Hungarian girl humming the main tune of the song. It sounded a little lonely, yet passionate at the same time with scattered woodwind solos and some contrapuntal parts mixed in as if the music became a village activity instead (picture Beauty and the Beast, when Belle’s entire village is singing  and dancing to the song “Belle”). It was a very lively and endearing piece that I’m really glad the BFO played, because I could see they understood the piece thoroughly, including its roots and the shape of Hungarian culture.

The final official piece they played was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, which needs no introduction or explanation. I’ve listened to different orchestras playing this famous piece before, including hearing it being played to the actual ballet, and I must say that the BFO have really done a good job at conveying the flurry of powerful emotions that characterise  the world’s most famous romance of all time. The fight scenes were strewn with mounting tension that climaxed with clashing cymbals and frantic duels between strings,  which made the aftermath all the more tragic when the same strings that struggled for power and dominance began to wail a mournful tune. In turn, it lent more emotion to the love scenes, where Romeo and Juliet’s famous theme song was played with just the right build-up of escalating passion, before bursting with all the love, joy, and sorrow that came with such a forbidden love. Still, these ‘love sparks’ couldn’t be denied, as could be heard with the harp’s high-pitched pizzicatos and sighing strings. Then there’s the inevitable tragedy, when (spoiler alert!) Juliet ‘dies’, and the French horn mourns for her loss, depicting Romeo’s anguish and sorrow. The timpani knells doom (literally and figuratively), and the woodwinds call out the death of the lovers – sad, yet among the tragedy were vestiges of hope, as if in death, the two lovers are united forever.

What could be more deserving of a standing ovation? It was truly spectacular, and I even got a little laugh out of how Fischer had to keep coming out to take another bow before going back inside, then coming out again because the applause refused to stop. He finally conceded to our wishes for an encore, and played a short sample of Schubert’s Rosamudemusic and Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dance, which was a great way to end the lively performance of the BFO. Later on in the evening, someone asked me to compare the BFO to the CSO, which really isn’t what music is about. But I did it anyway, and I found the BFO musicians to be more lively in general, since there was a lot more movement and expression with the musician’s entire body, rather than just playing the music. They also switched places a lot between pieces, as if they wanted to mix up the sound to suit the piece they were playing. But in terms of quality, I’m left speechless at the performances of both orchestras, and I’m sure many others feel the same way. Feel free to come back any time of the year, Maestro Fischer, and make sure to bring all the musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra!