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On Thursday night, the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO), under the baton of their founder and conductor Iván Fischer, created unprecedented musical history in İstanbul's Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall (CRR).

This was not the 80-member orchestra’s debut in İstanbul, but it was a debut of another sort, and one that prompts continued celebrating. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is officially the first foreign “Orchestra in Residence” at the CRR, and their residency is throughout 2014.

Playing to a full house, their first program of meaty musical fare practically shook down the walls. In an all-Russian powerhouse program, they began with Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances” continued with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 performed by pianist Alexander Toradze, and the grand finale was Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, “Pathetique.”

Aside from the profound musical significance of this collaboration between the CRR and the Hungarian ensemble, it’s one of several cross-cultural liaisons taking place between Turkey and Hungary. In December, Hungarians and Turks celebrated the opening the first Hungarian Cultural Center in İstanbul with the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, in attendance. Similarly, the Yunus Emre Cultural Center opened in Budapest last September. The BFO orchestral residency at CRR, a venue which is named after one of Turkey’s premiere composers at the beginning of the Turkish Republic, is a prestigious feature of the cross-cultural plan and a symbol of cultural ties for the two countries.

In 1983, Fischer and pianist Zoltán Kocsis established the BFO, and over the past 30 years they have developed it into one of the 10 leading orchestras of the world. They have made over 50 recordings, two of which won Grammy Awards in 1998, and a nomination in 2013. Its stellar reputation is based on the superb performance quality that has been heard in all the major concert halls in the world and has received consistent praise from international critics. Because they tour frequently and are invited to major festivals, they also serve as high-profile artistic ambassadors for Hungary throughout the year.

Iván Fischer’s international profile is a portrait of a visionary and successful musical leader. He has guest-conducted the Berlin Philharmonic 10 times, and has appeared on the podiums of the New York Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. He also serves as music director of Konzerthaus Berlin and the principal conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra Berlin. He was recently lauded in the New York Times for his double duties as conductor and stage director of the production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at New York’s 2013 Lincoln Center Summer Festival. Another Times article, alongside others in the world press, lauded the debut of his own opera, “The Red Heifer,” in Budapest about a blood libel trial that addresses prejudice in Hungarian history.

Upon arrival in İstanbul for the concert at the CRR, maestro Fischer greeted members of the press, including Sunday’s Zaman, at his hotel. Ensconced in a neo-Ottoman style lounge, the maestro spoke about the BFO with ebullient pride of parentage: “This orchestra to me is like going into a house which I designed myself. It’s a totally different feeling. And it plays on a much higher level than any other orchestra.”

Referring to the new residency in İstanbul, Fischer said, “It’s a great opportunity to get acquainted with each other, and now we’ll have a chance to show how we perform different forms [of classical music].”

Another conductor will come for the next concert — BFO’s principal guest conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy, who “does important work with us,” Fischer added. That concert is on April 3, featuring Haydn’s Symphony No. 1, Beethoven’s “German Dances,” and Mozart’s Symphony No. 33 and Piano Concerto No. 24 with soloist Dezsö Ránki.

The BFO’s last appearance in İstanbul was 10 years ago, and the maestro has good memories of the occasion. He wants more opportunities, however, to see what Turkey is producing in the music world. “More visits would be welcome chances to hear the music of Turkish composers.”

He also feels the shared heritage between the two countries’ cultures. “We have a common history. We share words. All those 150 years of Ottoman occupation [of Hungary] left many Turkish traces on our culture. And for some people, it was actually an advantage: I come from a Jewish family, and during that time there was a lot of tolerance [for Jews]. In fact, during that time, the Jews lived more peacefully than the Christians.”

The Jan. 23 program’s inclusion of the colorful “Polovtsian Dances” is related to the maestro’s aforementioned historical connections. “This music by Borodin comes originally from a folk nation in central Asia who later found their home in Hungary,” he said. “And I especially love the program’s theme of Russian music. The third Prokofiev piano concerto is my favorite and Toradze is a Prokofiev expert. And performing the ‘Pathetique’ is always a special occasion.”

Fischer’s statements, although heartfelt and undoubtedly pumped through the voice of a tired traveler on that day, were pale in comparison to the actual experience of hearing his orchestra playing this repertoire. The concert was unforgettably thrilling.

The “Polovtsian Dances” are sure-fire winners in the category of orchestral showpieces, even without the chorus parts that are penned in the original score. The two most important instruments in the beginning are the oboe and English horn, and BFO’s players are superb. Their sublime sound in the dream-like opening paved the way for the ensuing heady mix of sweet exotica and brusque naiveté, á la western Europe’s fixation with the mysterious Orient, circa 1890.

The Prokofiev third piano concerto is one of the repertoire’s most powerful pieces and they are forever imprinted on Toradze, who has recorded and performed them all over the world. In his hands, this iconoclastic work is like having the composer’s soul in the room with us. The BFO’s strings excelled with fiery precision on multiple occasions and a perfectly matched clarinet duo contributed to the bewitching effect of this masterpiece.

Hearing the “Pathetique” performed by this ensemble is an experience of kaleidoscopic drama. Written nine days before the composer’s death, this deeply affecting score plunges the listener into a maelstrom of emotion. Fischer’s supremely skilled shaping of each phrase and the overall architecture created maximum expression without bathos. Wisely, he had arranged the orchestra with the eight string basses on a riser against the back wall and the lower brass in a corner so that the low end of the sound spectrum came to us with gusto. The result was a tantalizing modicum of depth in a hall with virtually none. Eighty players on the CRR’s medium-size stage is as jam-packed as a sardine can, but they nevertheless created the kind of spectral musical magic that all of İstanbul will now be privileged to hear.

 

Today’s Zaman (Photo: Mehmet Yaman)