“I started as a cataract smith”
After twenty years, the managing director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Tamás Körner, is leaving his post. We have interviewed Tamás Körner about the work of the past two decades and the continuity of the life of the Orchestra.
- The past twenty years of the Festival Orchestra were, at the same time, highly successful and stormily strenuous. How can you see now these two decades of the life of the Orchestra?
- If I had to characterise with one single word these two decades I would say they were “marvellous”. The occasional orchestra not too well-known in wider circles and giving concerts only a few times a year has, by now, become one of the most dominant symphonic orchestras of the world and the most popular musical institution in Hungary. It stems from the nature of such things that all this could only be achieved with constant fights since the Festival Orchestra operates amongst different power lines and interests. However, the permanent force to prove, the fight for financial security, to keep and increase the number of our audience or for better musical instruments did not happen in vain: they preserved us from becoming lazy.
- When the Festival Orchestra was founded in 1983, it seemed to be, by origin, a special formation in the Hungarian music life. Then, in the early 1990s, this position became even more specific and unique with its form of operation and method of financing still quite unusual on the cultural scene, not to speak about the Orchestra’s artistic and business professionalism.
- In the early 1980s, the two founders of the Orchestra, the young conductor already known in the internal music life, Iván Fischer, and the equally celebrated piano artist, Zoltán Kocsis, have reached the recognition, purely on logical basis, we could say, that there was a fundamental problem with the structure of Hungarian orchestras, if, in spite of the well recognised high level of musical education and artistic talents, we never had an internationally acknowledged symphonic orchestra. They have realised that it is the structure which should be changed, and they have founded under the aegis of this recognition, the Festival Orchestra, which was emphatically not financed by the state, was artistically independent, and compared itself to the international standards. When, in 1992 a specific historical moment offered the chance for the orchestra to become a permanent Orchestra, the professional frameworks for the operation of the Orchestra, non-existent before, also had to be created. At that time, I used to work in the Hungarian Institute in Paris, and I was contacted there by Iván Fischer who asked me to become his partner in this venture. My role was essentially limited to giving help in the establishment of those conditions which serve high-quality artistic work free from compromises. Nowadays I already know that I started as a cataract smith, using, in addition, such solutions, which were not only unknown at that time for the Hungarian musical life but created, in many people, incomprehension and, often hostility. If I want to use a term which is quite popular nowadays I would say that “non-orthodox” methods were applied: the two-year contracts of the musicians, our own concert organisation activities, and self-management. Or, I could also mention the sales of tickets by ourselves which seemed to be absolutely revolutionary in a world where people could only buy their concert tickets either at the ticket office on Vörösmarty square on in the ticket office of the Music Academy. I simply thought over how good it would be for me, as a concert-goer, to know more about the artists playing and performing on the stage, namely if there were a lively contact between the orchestra and its audience. We called the members of the audience by name, we started to correspond with them, and then, after several years, I was surprised to read in the professional press that it was Tamás Körner who familiarised the Hungarian cultural life, with the technique of direct mailing. I had no idea at all about what direct mailing meant! I simply tried to find those solutions which can successfully help, from the background, the realisation of the music vision of Iván Fischer. Because, just to avoid any misunderstanding, this was the decisive factor in the success of the Festival Orchestra, and this remains to be dominant also nowadays.
- The Festival Orchestra also took the lead in efficiently finding the sponsors, and this is the case also today.
- Since the Orchestra never wanted to be completely dependent from state financing or funding from the metropolitan city, and thus becoming dependent from them, we have paid, from the very beginning, special attention to funding coming from the private and the business sectors. Already between 1983 and 1992 the sponsors facilitated for the Orchestra to give concerts a few times a year, and the role of sponsoring has become even more important as of 1992. Evidently, this method of culture financing has no traditions in Hungary, and no doubt that we have started with some illusions and failed to take into account that the several decades of state financing in this area severely affected the mentality of not only the artists, but also the public and the future possible sponsors. Consequently, the sponsors from the business sphere were reluctant to enter this territory from where the state withdrew and we can feel this effect even nowadays. Anyway, I think it is a great success that in spite of all this we managed to create this new basic form of maintenance and operation structure, the foundations which rely upon more than one pillar (the state, the metropolitan city, the business and the private sectors), and, in spite of all the difficulties, it works well also from an artistic point of view.
- Were there any great, unrealised plans, or dead-ends during these twenty years?
- Of course, there were, since the common fate of plans-dreams is that only a part of them can reach the phase of realisation! For example, we have been taken, since twenty years, by the idea to have our own concert hall! We have been planning, since about two decades at least, to call to life a summer festival of great significance in Hungary since it would have been very important. We have imagined a number of venues for such a festival from the Margaret-island, to the mountains of Pilis, down to as far as Tihany by the Lake Balaton, but we could not find the right one. We also tried to make a radio station transmitting classical music 24 hours a day, with great naivety, we tendered for a frequency, we prepared with programme plans and recording samples, but, of course, in vain. But, at the same time, we have also realised a number of things which seemed to be almost impossible or excessively daring at that time, like for example the performance of concert programmes twice and now three times consecutively.
- If we take it that way, the careful way by which your successor or more precisely successors have been selected to your place is also quite an unusual solution in the Hungarian music life. Did you also take part in this selection procedure?
- Today, the Festival Orchestra is simply too successful to endanger its operation with personnel and personal issues. I have decided, several years ago, that I shall withdraw and stay in the background when I reach 65: I have indicated this intention three years ago to the Board of Trustees of the Orchestra in order to facilitate that the well planned process necessary for the selection of the right person or persons could be started. I asked them not to give me any role in this process because in such cases, even if we have the best intentions, we can easily become biased and in any case, I wanted to give absolute freedom to the Board of Trustees. But after the short list was completed, they asked my opinion about the candidates, and I can tell you, that the Board took an excellent decision: Stefan Engler and Orsolya Erdődy are the right choice. The implementation of the new strategic plan which we have prepared, looking ahead, and working on it for more than a year will now be their task. This is one of the guarantees for continuity, while one of the most crucial pledges for continuity will remain the stability of the artistic intention and vision defining the whole of the Festival Orchestra, namely the person of Iván Fischer.