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Hungarian orchestra leads from strength in Symphony Center debut

Given the musical ties between Chicago and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, it's odd that local concert goers had to wait until Monday night for the ensemble to make its Symphony Center debut.

This youngest of Europe’s major orchestras – founded by conductor Ivan Fischer and pianist Zoltan Kocsis in 1983 – named former Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Georg Solti its honorary guest conductor, a position he held until his death in 1997. Fischer, the orchestra’s music director, made respectful reference to Solti and Fritz Reiner, the CSO’s other great Hungarian maestro, in his remarks to the audience Monday
night.

Too bad the Budapest musicians did not bring as adventuresome a program to downtown Chicago as they presented the previous week in New York. Carnegie Hall heard all three Bartok piano concertos over two nights. Only one Bartok piece, the lightweight “Hungarian Peasant Songs,” figured on Monday’s concert, with a couple of Bartok’s “Rumanian Folk Dances” thrown in as encores. Standard symphonic fare made up the rest of the agenda.

Still, there was nothing standard about the execution. The orchestra draws its personnel from a rich pool of young, homegrown talent. Women musicians are conspicuous in the ranks. In interviews, Fischer has spoken about taking the players’ creative impulses as a starting point in shaping his interpretations. You could read the intensity of their involvement on their faces as much as through their playing.

Fischer devoted the first half to Schubert’s “Rosamunde” (or “Magic Harp”) Overture and Symphony No. 5. Both works received light, supple, relaxed readings that showed off the refinement of the strings and the graceful teamwork of the woodwinds.

For the symphony, Fischer adopted an unusual seating plan, stationing pairs of cellos and the four double basses among the other strings and woodwinds. Apparently his idea was to create a more blended string sound suggestive of orchestral chamber music. The tonal result was right for Schubert, with the forwardly-placed basses adding solidity to the harmonic foundation.

I’m not sure why the “Hungarian Peasant Songs” isn’t heard all that often, other than the fact that Bartok’s orchestral transcription of folk tunes gathered in the field adheres to a simpler style than his modernist masterpieces. It was a pleasure to hear the musicians digging into their native music with such authenticity of sound and manner. The various solo passages put the orchestra’s first-chair strengths front and center.

By contrast, Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” Fantasy-Overture turns up all the time in the concert hall, though seldom with such loving attention to orchestral color and atmosphere as the Budapest players brought to it. From the finely balanced woodwind chords of the opening, through the passionate love music, to the tragic final apotheosis, this reading made the Russian war horse gallop with renewed vigor.

The under-populated audience gave Fischer and his players several ovations followed by rhythmic applause. The listeners were rewarded with two contrasting encores, the hushed Entr’acte in B-flat major from Schubert’s “Rosamunde” and Bartok’s whirling “Rumanian Dances.”

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune