Ivan Fischer: ‘Orchestras will have to change’ (The Telegraph)
From his Budapest home, conductor Ivan Fischer tells Ivan Hewett about the future of ensemble playing.
If there’s one musician who exemplifies the European ideal, it’s surely the Hungarian-born, Swiss-and-German educated, multilingual, globe-trotting conductor Ivan Fischer. Walking into his chic modernist home in a quiet, leafy Budapest suburb, the first thing that strikes me are the signs of the old “Middle European” culture that once transcended national boundaries.
Every wall groans with books in Hungarian, German and other languages, many of which look like family heirlooms. Every flat surface music is covered in music. The spirit of the great Hungarian musicians who were so dominant all around the world — conductors like George Szell, Fritz Reiner, pianists like Annie Fischer, composers like Dohnányi and Bartók — seems to live in this quiet room.
Hungary’s great cultural calling card at the moment is undoubtedly the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which Fischer founded 30 years ago. The name reflects the fact that the orchestra was the centrepiece of the new Budapest Spring Festival. But it’s long since outgrown the festival, and is now reckoned to be among the world’s finest symphony orchestras. Has he ever thought of changing the name?
“I have but in the end we decided not to because in a way it’s very appropriate. We want every concert to be a ‘festivo’, and that doesn’t often happen with a normal orchestra. Playing in an orchestra is normally a matter of following instructions and getting it right, and when I was a young conductor, just starting out, I kept thinking — is there a better way to do this?”
By 1982 Fischer decided it was time to find out, by creating his own orchestra. “I was 32, I thought I could change the world,” he laughs.
The question was, where? It soon became clear that his home city of Budapest was ideal. “The idea of gathering a bunch of players in, say Chicago, to improve on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is just crazy. But in Budapest the idea made perfect sense. We had players who were absolutely in the top league, but the orchestras were second-rate. I wanted players who were willing to be creative, to listen hard as well as play, so they could contribute to the whole, and it was amazing how quickly I found them. It worked so well because two ambitions came together, theirs and mine.”
The fact that in 30 years the Budapest Festival Orchestra has come from nowhere to number 9 in Gramophone magazine’s ranking of the world’s orchestras speaks volumes for Fischer’s idea.
Right now it’s Bartók who’s on Fischer’s mind. The night before our meeting he conducted his orchestra in his nostalgically beautiful Concerto for Orchestra, and later this month he brings that same piece to London. For Fischer this piece has a special significance.
“People often say Bartók is expressing a love for his homeland in this piece,” he says. “That’s true but they forget that the finale has a completely different, very joyful mood. Bartók said that here he imagined a great dance of all the different nations together. It’s wrong to think of him as nationalist composer.”
But what about that notorious letter of Bartók forbidding his fiancé to speak German? And turning up for his final exams at the Conservatoire wearing Hungarian national costume?
“Yes, but he became disillusioned about all that, and made a complete U-turn. He became a passionate advocate of internationalism, and began to research the folk music of other nations, including Arab countries. When the Hungarian government started to take on Nazi ideas about racial purity, Bartók felt he just had to leave. He wrote a very clever article against them where he didn’t say a word about politics. He just pointed out that the richest folk music doesn’t come from the centre of a country, it comes from the border regions, where cultures mingle together.”
So does Bartók have lessons for Hungary now? “Oh, more than anyone! We have a really strong nationalist movement growing in Hungary, a kind of pride in old glories and a fear of difference. There’s a mistrust of Europe and the West, because some people feel Europe took advantage of our weakness and came in with their multinational companies and subsidised farming. I can understand that, but you know we are such a small country, if we want to prosper we have to become part of the European family of nations.”
Meanwhile his orchestra is prospering, with the creeping dangers of institutionalisation that brings. To fight it he’s constantly looking ahead, and also around at the wider orchestral scene.
“We have this strange situation where the period ensembles have taken over the really early music, say up to Mozart,” he says. “And on the other side you have new music ensembles who play only that. The standard orchestras find that their repertoire is always shrinking. In the future the orchestra will have to think in a different way – it can’t forever be this rigid formation of 100 players fixed in one role.”
In various ways, Fischer is trying out ideas for an orchestra of the future. “One way in which I try to encourage creativity is limiting the number of weeks each player has with the main orchestra, so they can spend some time on their own projects. When they join I always want to know what their passion is. If it’s to play a solo role they could have maybe a concerto date — we have a public audition for that. If someone has an interest in older classical music, or new music, then I say: here’s a date, organise your own concert. Within the orchestra itself, we have different groupings, some for really old music, some for contemporary music.
“It’s all a matter of keeping routine away, and in that respect I like to think we start where other orchestras stop.”
The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer are at the Festival Hall, next Monday, then Basingstoke, Manchester and Birmingham.