Even a holy fool cannot walk on water
Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra are continuing the fight for enlightenment and human rights at home. But András Schiff sees things differently: The pianist refuses to play in Hungary in protest. Now they are on tour together. (by Eleonore Büning in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)
When the Hungarian conductor, Iván Fischer, took over Berlin’s Konzerthausorchester, one of his first official acts was to provide accompaniment for the Federal Music Industry Association’s Echo Award Ceremony. It wasn’t exactly a matter of pride. To give an idea of the height of the fall, the Berlin Philharmonic, the best orchestra in town, would never have stooped this low. The Konzerthausorchester, under the lofty name of the ‘Berlin Symphony Orchestra’, was established in East Germany to stand alongside West Berlin’s Karajan’s Philharmonic on the international stage. With conductors such as Kurt Sandlering at its head, it was indeed able to honour this for a long time in terms of quality. However, 22 years after German reunification, it had to grab at any straw. The intervening years had been tough. Slowly but surely it had become degraded and rundown under various conductors, some of whom were excellent but all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, tried in vain to fight the imposed austerity.
Then, one autumn day, Fischer arrived. He came like a knight in shining armour, as if in a fairy tale from the future. He rode in on an old Dutch bicycle, wobbling, honking and waving over the red carpet, into the cameramen and the phalanx of ZDF-VIP-gala guests. With rhinestones sparkling , he cycled right up to the foot of the staircase where some of his musicians greeted him with applause. He got off, deposited the bike and strode up the steps as master and sovereign of a house which would, in fact, from now be in the pretty, rather kitsch faux-Schinkel concert hall on Gendarmenmarkt.
This appearance is legendary. He did away with the official dramaturgy, not only of ZDF, but of all areas of cultural policy. “Whoops,” was the message, “my orchestra is alive!” And so it is. Iván Fischer, now sixty-three, still likes to behave like a rascal, a prankster or a guerrilla. He has a knack of turning defeat into victory. He also turns musical straw into gold.
Today, three years on, the Konzerthausorchester is thriving. The chief conductor ensures political energy and musical obstinacy, with a certain chutzpah that informs his dealings with authority and tradition alike. Fischer rehearses intensively, creates comical, often monothematic programmes, organises surprise and marathon concerts, and talks to the audience. The orchestra has been rejuvenated. It has adopted a new seating arrangement, with the double basses behind the woodwind section, the brass section to one side and the violins separate. The Berlin press has written about how Fischer uses this unconventional set up in reaction to the acoustic problems of the concert hall, which may vary from piece to piece. But that is only partly true. As Fischer puts it, “we have the acoustics under control. However, for decades I have been working with seating arrangements wherever I conduct.”
It is not the so-called ‘American’ seating arrangement, nor even the so-called ‘German’ tradition, but rather it is the ‘Fischer seating arrangement’. It takes into account the origin of the sound of each instrument, whether it occurs near (violin) or far (double bass) from the musician’s ear, how loud or soft, how sharp or mild it is. Every musician should be able to hear themselves and the others perfectly. So the brass section should not toot straight into the ears of the woodwind section. The result of the ‘Fischer seating arrangement’ is a quasi-natural transparency and dynamic balance, both of which give freedom to each orchestral musicians’ feed. “They feel more comfortable like this”, says Fischer, “they have cleaner intonation.” What is more, “I don’t understand why so many colleagues still conduct in the traditional arrangement.”
This, and other orchestral reforms, he has developed through the Budapest Festival Orchestra: ‘his’ Hungarian orchestra. Fischer founded the orchestra in 1983, together with pianist Zoltán Kocsis, and still presides over it today in his role as Artistic Director. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is Hungary’s flagship orchestra, the best in the country, a national treasure. Internationally, it even ranks among the ten best orchestras in the world. Forty percent of its budget comes from the state treasury, while the Budapest Festival Orchestra funds sixty percent itself. It is an essential item of prestige, and an important export commodity for the Hungarian political class.
It is even more important for the audience, who see Iván Fischer as a kind of shining light. Everyone recognises him in the street, greets him and adores him. Fischer is one of the few ‘holy fools’ in Hungary who can afford to make an open stand against Orbán’s government. Even those who do not necessarily belong to the regular clientele of the Bártok Hall of the MüPa – ordinary people, taxi drivers or market stall holders – have witnessed one of Fischer’s concerts; among their special projects, regular ‘open-air’ concerts are organised at ‘Hősök tere’, Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. Recently, eight thousand people flocked there to listen to Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Music by a Jewish composer, played by Hungary’s national treasure, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, with two hundred Roma children dancing and performing.
“Yes, there is racism in Hungary.”[A1] Fischer sighs. “The problem is historical. Hungarians still bemoan the Treaty of Versailles, which forced them to give up territory to the Romanians and Czechs after the First World War. They still feel hard done by, and in order to have the possibility of regaining some territory they have since committed terrible misdeeds; aligning themselves with Hitler during the Nazi era and helping to murder half a million Jews. It was almost a hundred years ago, but this sense of victimisation is terrible; it is still widespread amongst the population and is exploited by right-wing popularists.”
Fischer himself is Jewish; he comes from Budapest, like Mendelssohn has a middle-class background; his brother Ádám is also a conductor: his father Sándor escaped the camps, but his grandparents were killed. Anti-Semitism is on the rise once more, but it is not yet “too bad”. Much more dangerously, and more specifically, Hungary’s racism affects minorities such as the Roma. His orchestra has developed aid projects for this cause. Fischer himself organises refugee assistance, lorries, accommodation, food and blankets even as Orbán seals the borders. He and his musicians also perform in forgotten, taboo places.
As Fischer says, “in many villages or small towns where the Jewish population has long-since vanished, there is still a synagogue. Sometimes they are in ruins, while others have been turned into furniture shops or sports halls. We go there and give free concerts. People are curious, the music draws them in and they come. We play, then a Rabbi explains what was here before and how this coexistence with the Jews has disappeared. Most of the audience have no idea about the kind of place that exists in the middle of their town; they are no longer aware of this part of Hungarian history. However, if you please, this is not a protest. It is not about politics. We make our music here, just with a little enlightenment. It works beautifully! The concerts are always full!”
Outside Hungary, the Budapest Festival Orchestra serves as an ambassador for a better Hungary. Recently they performed this function at the Salzburg Festival, the Edinburgh Festival, and latterly at the Bonn Beethoven Festival. Yesterday, under Fischer’s leadership, they began a European tour in Dortmund, while tomorrow the orchestra is making a guest appearance at the Alte Oper Frankfurt. Subsequent stops will see them in Eindhoven, Basel, Rotterdam and Vienna. They are playing a typical monothematic Fischer programme, whereby each piece is related and interconnected to the next. This time around there is a ‘Moravian’ theme, which leads from Schumann to Brahms, from Brahms to Smetana, and then to Dvořák. Because, according to Fischer, “music should not be disperse, it should be focussed. The idea of the focus,” he said, “was taken from museum education officers, who attract and astonish crowds with big exhibitions concentrating on a single artist or theme.” András Schiff, of all people, will perform as soloist on this tour. He will be playing Johannes Brahms’s Piano Concerto in D minor.
Fischer and Schiff, the two great Hungarians, currently only play together outside Hungary. Since 2010, with the restrictions on civil liberties imposed by the Orbán government and the ‘national chauvinist’ Fidesz party, Schiff has refused to perform in his homeland. This is his way of resisting. As Fischer puts it, “I understand András. We are good friends. But I have to stay here.” Fischer lives and works around half of his everyday life in Berlin, with the other half in Budapest. This is his way of resisting.
It is not totally without danger. Even a holy fool cannot keep walk on water. Just the day before yesterday a storm of indignation broke in the Orbán-loyal press; a ‘shit storm’ against Fischer, which continued on Twitter. Right-wing popularists called for him to be muzzled. An old letter from 2011, which Fischer had written to Hillary Clinton, was unearthed. In it, he asked her not to allow herself to be exploited during her planned visit to Hungary, and complained openly about the restrictions on freedom of speech, the dismantling of democratic rights and the disregard of human rights.