For nearly two centuries, Berlin's Konzerthaus building has been a crucible of German identity. A signature work of master architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, it is a reminder of everything from Prussian Classicism and German Romanticism to Nazi-era dramaturgy and communist-era urban planning. But for Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer, the new chief conductor of the Konzerthausorchester, the building's associations are comfortingly musical.
“I love it,” says Mr. Fischer, 61 years old, speaking about the Konzerthaus’s excellent acoustics and “warm, emotional” atmosphere. Music performed in its quaintly decorated, modest-sized hall “hits you in the stomach.”
On Aug. 17, the Konzerthaus and its resident ensemble will start a new chapter when Mr. Fischer officially begins his first season as the head of the orchestra and music director of the Konzerthaus itself. The Budapest native will divide his time between Berlin and his hometown, where he is music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, or BFO, regularly ranked one of the best orchestras in the world.
Mr. Fischer’s appointment comes at a time of increasing acclaim for both himself and the BFO. Last year, he was one of three conductors nominated by the U.K.’s Gramophone magazine for artist of the year, along with two certified Wunderkinder some three decades his junior—the Venezuelan Gustavo Dudamel, who went on to win, and Latvian Andris Nelsons.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fischer and the BFO have been winning raves for their pioneering high-tech recordings with Netherlands-based label Channel Classics.
The BFO is the youngest of the world’s top orchestras. Co-founded in 1983 by Mr. Fischer and Hungarian pianist and conductor Zoltán Kocsis, it developed a distinctive sound and radical approach that reflect its conductor’s skepticism of orchestras in general.
“I didn’t like orchestras,” he says, relaxing in the living room of his 1920s Budapest villa, located in the green hills on the Buda side of the Danube, where he lives with wife, Gabriella Pivon, the BFO’s first flutist, their two small children and several pets.
Looking back on the years leading up to the founding of the BFO, he says he thought of orchestras as “boring—not a place where you can look for real art.”
The product of a musical family (his older brother is noted opera conductor Ádám Fischer), Mr. Fischer started out as a childhood cellist, playing chamber music with his siblings, and he says his decadeslong shaping of the BFO was inspired by “the excitement and involvement” shared by audiences and musicians at string quartet concerts.
Among Mr. Fischer’s innovations at the BFO is the unusual placement of musicians, points out Jared Sacks, Channel Classics’ American-born founder and managing director.
Mr. Fischer “is always rotating” musicians, says Mr. Sacks. In his 2010 recording of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, Mr. Fischer set aside convention and decided to spread the wind players out among the string sections. And he regularly places the first and second violin sections opposite each other rather than adjacent, requiring the second group, who might be regarded as weaker, to be the equals of the first. The result, says Mr. Sacks, is “a much more balanced” sound.
Mr. Fischer views the BFO’s unique sound in emotional terms. “In many orchestras the playing is detached,” he says. “Musicians have a perception that their job is to get it right and to follow instructions. Here [at the BFO], we created a system where the job is to put your heart into the music and to take risks—to be emotionally involved. That is what you hear.”
Mr. Fischer new second home, the Konzerthausorchester, is also an oddity in European musical culture—both relatively young and recently rebranded. Founded in 1952 as East Berlin’s answer to the Berlin Philharmonic, which ended up in the west, the orchestra was known as the Berliner Sinfonie-Orchester until 2006, when took its present name.
The orchestra was best known for its long association with German conductor Kurt Sanderling, who many conductors today regard as a model. Sanderling died last fall at the age of 98, and Mr. Fischer will devote an early portion of his tenure in Berlin to a festival in Sanderling’s memory.
In reunified Berlin, pre-1989 musical habits have lived on, and a substantial number of the Konzerthausorchester’s fans date back to the communist period. For Mr. Fischer, their loyalty is “very touching and beautiful.”
“I tried to understand these people,” he says of his new East Berlin audience. “Everybody is happy about joining the west, but they also have a certain pride of what happened here in East Berlin from a purely musical point of view. And they want to hold on to that pride.”
Sebastian Nordmann, managing director of the Konzerthaus, says that around 20% of the 12,000 subscribers are holdovers from the communist period. He says Mr. Fischer was brought to Berlin because he is not only a “wonderful conductor” but also a “fantastic pedagogue.”
Neither Mr. Fischer nor Mr. Nordmann will say what direction Mr. Fischer’s tenure might mean for the orchestra’s future recordings, but Jared Sacks looks forward to continuing the BFO’s Channel Classics work.
Mr. Fischer insists on recording sessions rather than the recording of live performances, a timesaving vehicle now preferred by many orchestras. He says he prefers Channel Classics to larger labels, where the “way a CD looks” can be more important than “the way it sounds.”
Next month, Channel Classics will release the BFO’s recording of Mahler’s 1st Symphony, part of Mr. Fischer’s continuing investigation into the composer’s works. The conductor feels a special affinity with Mahler.
“I don’t want to sound mystical about it, but I need to study Mahler scores much less than other composers,” he says. “I don’t know really why,” he says, but he points out a connection in their backgrounds. “Mahler came from a Habsburg Jewish family, nonreligious and culture-adoring,” he says, adding that his own family “is absolutely the same.”
Mr. Fischer’s Jewish background has led to some “primitive” anti-Semitic outbursts on Hungarian websites, he says, part of a phenomenon that many observers of Hungary attribute to the changing political atmosphere in the country.
In 2010, a former prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and his right-wing Fidesz party formed a new government, instituting policies, including the promulgation of a new constitution, that critics see as anti-democratic. Meanwhile, smaller nationalist and extreme-right-wing parties have seen a rise in popularity or visibility.
A number of leading Hungarian cultural figures have spoken out against the government’s policies and the rise of nationalist sentiments, including Mr. Fischer, and his brother, Ádám, who resigned as music director of Budapest’s Hungarian State Opera in late 2010 and now lives in Edinburgh. Other government critics include expatriate pianist András Schiff, who now refuses to appear in Hungarian concert halls, and Nobel Prize-winning writer Imre Kertész.
Mr. Fischer says the BFO is dedicated to making music and “political considerations aren’t spoken about.” However, he thinks the orchestra—founded in opposition to state-run orchestras and cultural policies during the communist regime—carries with it an “overtone” of dissidence, appealing, these days, to aspirations of open-mindedness in its audience.
He takes comfort in a long view when thinking about the “amazing nationalism you experience now in Hungary.”
“Europe is going through a slow process of integration,” he says. “There is no doubt in my mind this will lead to a federal system, a United States of Europe.” Hungary’s current political atmosphere is a “backlash” that is causing that road to feel “bumpy.”
In Berlin, he says, he wants to use music to bring “the rest of Berlin” together with its core fans in the east; meanwhile, he tries to use music to connect Hungary with the rest of Europe.
Music is “a bridge,” he says, “between cities, nations and peoples.”