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I wonder how many of us know that – according to renowned international music critics – one of the ten best symphony orchestras of the world is in Budapest (ujszo.com)

Even if we do know, can we fully grasp the significance of this, and properly appreciate the opportunity that we can listen to truly “world famous music” in the narrow sense of the word at almost any time, because while continuously touring the world, the BFO gives concerts in Budapest virtually every month.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s managers and members, led by Iván Fischer, who has been chief music director since the Orchestra was founded, have done much for the BFO to be held in such high regard by both the international music scene and audiences. They brought numerous ideas and novelties into Hungarian concert life, ranging from creative orchestral work and a new rehearsal method conceived and elaborated by Iván Fischer (in which he strives to preserve the individuality of the musicians whilst maintaining the perfect integrity of the orchestra’s sound) to addressing ever greater audiences. Children can enjoy the “Cocoa Concerts” while there are also concerts for young people; “secret concerts” as well as “request concerts” are organised for audiences fond of interesting things, along with various music events and festivals.  The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s (BFO) concert season started every September between 2005 and 2012 with the Mahler Festival. A new season opening festival, named Bridging Europe, was organised for the season that has just started. The new festival primarily aims to open up the audience’s eyes (and ears!) to another country’s musical culture, thus providing an idea of its classical values, less familiar treasures as well as novelties.


The Czech Republic and Czech music were selected in this first year. The programme was selected with the utmost care to be rather versatile. Antonín Dvořák’s music represented classic and publicly known music. The programme featured many of his frequently played pieces that have also been performed at world-class BFO concerts (Symphony No. 8, Slavonic dances) as well as pieces rarely heard (e.g. Requiem, Slovakian singer soloists featuring Jolana Fogašová and Peter Berger; or the Piano Concerto that unjustly finds itself behind the Violin and Cello Concerto).

I would rank Hans Krása’s Brundibar, written in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and staged with children, among the less known Czech “treasures” (which was by no means unfamiliar to BFO fans and visitors of the Mahler Festivals) along with the programme of the Czech Baroque Evening where, in addition to Pavel Jozef Vejvanovsky and Jan Dismas Zelenka’s pieces (Harmonia Romana, Soprano Arias and Capriccio No. 5. in G major), the music of the Benda family (Jan Jiří, František and Jiří Antonín) was played too. Jazz was also present at the Festival, featuring concerts by Iva Bittová (if her uncategorisable art can be categorised as jazz) and the trio of Miroslav Vitouš double bassist, Jiří Stivín flutist and Stefano Bagnoli percussionist.


To the majority of the concert goers the Contemporary Music concert was the most unfamiliar, and for that reason it was the most interesting to me. The programme was selected by Peter Vrábel, a Prague-based Slovakian conductor and also founder of the Berg Orchestra specialising in contemporary and 20th century music, and he himself also conducted the chamber orchestra made up of the BFO’s musicians.  Vrábel truly understands and knows contemporary Czech music; his selection painted an interesting and colourful image of it.

5 composers, 5 pieces of music, all of superb quality and in varied styles. If I tried to find a common feature or at least one that exists in several pieces, one would be the use of grotesque elements and the other is the influence of jazz. Michal Nejtek gave the poetic title “…your heart stops, you continue writing…” to his piece of music inspired by a poem of American poet Raymond Carver.  This is not by any means a “musicalisation” of the poem. Words of the composer:  “I see the text as a thing which is distinctive from the sound, a semantically different entity – so I don’t try to connect them traditionally by trying to compose music or an accompaniment for it. In this case, the poem is a counterpoint of the composition, I thought about it while I was composing, but the music doesn’t actually have anything to do with it… The musicians simply read the poem and its meaning is lost in the growing chaos.”

For me, the most exciting and most inspiring piece was Martin Smolka’s Rush Hour in Celestial Streets. The composer was inspired by an out-of-tune piano found in a rural cottage: “Its sound was peculiarly round and velvety, and if the foot-keys get stuck, a magical universe of echoes and reverberations starts to speak. We can say that this piano can create a complex poetic event from a simple chord. I noted about 12 such chords, and analysed them in detail. I wrote the score for the symphonic orchestra from what I filtered out from this.” There are many things to be found in this piece: film-like cuts, unexpected dynamic contrasts, distortions triggered by the use of micro intervals, repetitions… We heard music which was grotesque, forlorn, strongly emotional and also made us think, verifying that contemporary composers’ music is important, interesting and exciting too. It’s worth getting to know.


Naturally, every piece of the concert, e.g. Slavomír Hořínka’s Hebrew-titled Shirei Ahava, which also uses Jewish liturgy tunes, is interesting and worth getting to know. Admittedly, the statement of the composer that the “piece is a tribute to love” did raise some doubts in my mind.  We heard a piece of music which is more traditional and more pleasant to listen to compared to the other ones, but which did not truly touch me, either mentally or emotionally. Of course, a selection which aims to provide an overview must include pieces that are sure to be warmly accepted by at least part of the audience.

Ondřej Adámek’s composition entitled Ça turne, ça bloque written for ten musicians and a sampler comprises a combination of instrumental music and human voices manipulated in various manners, which possibly presented the greatest difficulty for the musicians who were otherwise performing superbly. Petr Wajsar, the composer of the last item of the evening’s programme, is more known as a jazz musician in the Czech Republic, but he has also studied classical composition. 20th century inspiration, more specifically, the impact of Steve Reich’s music, which the composer sympathetically admits, was most felt in his piece of music. He uses the texts in Paul Claudel’s volume entitled One hundred phrases for a fan. “The volume is a specific interpretation of the Japanese ‘haiku’. Therefore I used a female voice pronouncing Japanese sounds as a basis for the music. Since the Japanese language is quite melodious, it was basically enough to write down the melody of the individual Japanese signs, which generated the basis for the music that almost created itself” – he said.

This concert of the Bridging Europe Festival reached its goal. It made us familiar with new and less known pieces of music. Peter Vrábel, conductor, said a brief and concise introduction before every piece, which at times even disclosed some behind-the-scenes secrets – just a pity that the interpreter was unable to convey the conductor’s words authentically.  But this was probably the only minor shortcoming of a beautiful and meaningful evening, which is forgivable at a musical event, annoying though it was. I can, nevertheless, recommend not only next year’s festival but also the BFO’s concerts, in particular the contemporary music evenings, to everyone.