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Ivan FischerPhoto: Marco Borggreve

The Times / Richard Morrison
As he gears up for the Proms, the Hungarian conductor says orchestras of the 21st century have to adapt or die.

After their 31 years together there is still no such thing as a routine concert when Iván Fischer is on stage with his Budapest Festival Orchestra. Their two forthcoming Proms prove the point. On paper the programmes look utterly conventional: a “Viennese” evening of 19th-century dances, then a scarcely original double bill of Brahms’ Third and Fourth Symphonies. When the 63-year-old Hungarian starts to talk about them, however — his quiet, ironic manner almost comically at odds with the radical ideas he is voicing — they seem as incendiary as the Gunpowder Plot.

In Fischer’s eyes, for instance, Brahms is not a solid and slightly staid symphonic composer in an era dominated by noisy pioneers such as Wagner, but the leader of a sort of cultural resistance movement. “Yes, if you compare him to Liszt and Wagner he could be interpreted as conservative,” Fischer says, “but more and more I think of him as a Green.”

A Green? As in “environmentally conscious”? “Yes,” Fischer continues. “Because he speaks for nature against the machine, against the type of innovation that takes us away from contact with the natural world.”

How does that work? Fischer’s thesis, it transpires, is that Brahms resisted using the powerful new musical instruments being developed in the mid-19th century not through caution or lack of curiosity, but as a deliberate rebellion against progress for progress’s sake. “Instruments developed hugely in his time,” he notes. “The natural horn and trumpet were replaced by valved instruments that could create chromatic notes. Wagner used them all the time. Brahms refused to use them. He wanted to stay within the natural world. And he also refused to go with the progress in musical language. He was an anti-innovator. I think he was brave; probably the first composer to warn us that innovation is not necessarily a good thing.”

Fischer’s view of his “Viennese” Prom is equally jolting. Put bluntly, he wants to reassert musical equality for the Hungarians and all the ethnic groupings in that massive melting pot known as the Habsburg Empire. “If you listen to the New Year’s day concert played by the Vienna Philharmonic you hear only one side of the empire: the beautiful, aristocratic music of the Viennese court. Yet the empire was full of Serbs, Croats, Jews, Bohemians, Hungarians and gypsies and they all had their different musical styles. So I played with this idea of creating an alternative New Year’s day concert that would give us the other side.

“I like to see Johann Strauss being played together with things like Brahms’ Hungarian Dances — he visited Hungary and heard gypsy musicians — or the music of Kodály, who collected Hungarian folksongs and created a really rich musical language from it. If you present all these things together, you get a much fuller picture of a magnificent musical landscape. And also I think it might help people understand better what happened 100 years ago in Sarajevo, because the real tension that started the First World War was these little pockets of the empire wanting to break out.”

Fischer has never been shy of making political statements and recently composed an opera, The Red Heifer, that was premiered in Budapest last October to great acclaim, not least because his choice of subject — an infamous 19th-century Hungarian blood-libel trial in which a group of Jews was wrongly accused of murdering a peasant girl — was interpreted by many as a rebuke to the rising tide of antisemitic nationalism in present-day Hungary.

Fischer claims that he “doesn’t see the opera as a political statement at all”. Nevertheless he admits that he is worried by recent political developments. “I see them as a setback,” he says. “Hungary has a very fragile democracy. Of course I was one of the enthusiasts in the 1990s. I thought that now that we had freedom we could have a modern society, a wonderful country, we could learn from the experiences, good and bad, of the West. I was part of an enthusiastic generation that wanted to create a new, democratic Hungary.

“I think now that we were probably a small intellectual fragment of society. The larger population was left out and what they experienced was a lot of disappointment, how they couldn’t compete in the free market, how the subsidised French tomato was being bought instead of local tomatoes in the local shops. A lot of disappointments. Then the financial crisis hit Hungary badly. What is happening now is a step back, a disillusionment after this first 25 years. A lot of people believe populist, demagogic, easy arguments that promise short-term goals. I think Hungary will probably learn the lesson very soon that what the nationalists offer them is a dead end. So I hope this is a temporary illusion.”

Fischer also worries about the exodus of young Hungarians. “In the past few years over half a million young Hungarians have left the country to find jobs. And it is the good ones who leave, those who speak languages, are skilled and hard-working and not afraid to compete internationally.”

However, at least the Budapest Festival Orchestra remains intact. Many of the brilliant young players that Fischer recruited when he founded the ensemble in 1983 are still with him. How is it that this ensemble’s trademark zest and spirit of adventure has never faded? “I think it’s because this orchestra is the home of openness and innovation,” he says. “So many new things happen all the time. For example, last year we introduced concerts starting at midnight.” Did anyone come, or stay awake? “Yes, they are a huge success,” Fischer beams. “It was to attract people aged about 20 who probably love music but don’t have the type of classical concert they like. We thought that if we play at an hour when they are usually awake but their parents asleep they will feel comfortable because it’s only them. They sit on beanbags and we give them a discount if they come on bicycles. They immediately got the message that this was for them.”

Could Fischer ever imagine a time when he isn’t conducting his Budapest band? After all, he is much in demand elsewhere both as a principal conductor (having held appointments in Washington DC, Lyon and Berlin) and as a guest. He has even been mentioned as a possible successor for Mariss Jansons at the great Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, though he dismisses such speculation. “I need places where I can put my own ideas into practice and I formed the Budapest orchestra entirely to do that. So why should I move out? I only accept conducting jobs with other orchestras to check that I can still work in a normal orchestral environment and then only with orchestras that have a strong desire for reform. I would never go to orchestras that are too rigid and anti-reform.”

Fischer pulls no punches when talking about the need for reform. “Symphony orchestras in their present form have only a few more decades left, at most,” he says. “Their financing is already a vulnerability. Will American-style civic pride or the goodwill of European politicians really be enough to feed these large beasts that are basically the same now as they were a century ago? And is that rigid formation really appropriate for today or are we simply stuck with it? I think we are stuck with it. I would welcome a more flexible musical family that could adapt its size and resources to what different composers and audiences required. In Budapest we have a pool of musicians doing a variety of activities. Those orchestras that are flexible will survive; the rigid ones won’t. The same thing happened to dinosaurs, I think.”

The great Hungarian conductors of the past — such figures as Reiner, Szell, Doráti and Solti — are remembered as ferocious perfectionists with volcanic tempers. Does Fischer see himself in that tradition? “No,” he laughs, “but I have a great admiration for them. If you see only their terrifying or tyrannical side you see only a small part of them. Their main part was an enormous sense of responsibility to put the needs of music and audiences above that of the orchestral players’ welfare or job security. After the Second World War, however, orchestras became more democratic and their trade unions much stronger and a new sort of conductor emerged, one who serves the union and the musicians and who doesn’t cause trouble. Today’s conductors are more like elected politicians. Toscanini wouldn’t get many invitations today.”