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"We have decided to organise a Mahler Festival running over a few days, every year and starting this year for the first time, in Budapest, where the ingenious composer and conductor worked as an opera director for the first time in his life and presented his first symphony. The Mahler Festival has two goals: first, to present Gustav Mahler’s music, his life and his art, to promote international and national research into Mahler, to stimulate the composition of new works in Mahler’s spirit and to create a platform where these new compositions can be presented" – these are the words written in 2005 by Iván Fischer, director of the Budapest Mahler Festival.

As can be expected from Iván Fischer, these words were duly followed up with action, and the noble goal was achieved. The notion and practice of a Mahler Festival proved viable, and now counts as a prestigious event at the start of the season. The initial concept has undergone minor changes every year, and the contemporary composers invited are given varying degrees of freedom as to the length of the work to be composed and on what instruments. The number of composers invited also varies: this year the honourable task was assigned to one composer only. The number and type of events (could also) change, as well as the nature and rank of the accompanying programmes. Nevertheless, what matters hasn’t changed: the tone for the new season is set by the Mahler Festival, which continues to attract an international audience. (The enthusiasm of the Hungarian audience is not to be underestimated either, quite the contrary, but the very fact it is now also “listed” internationally is a source of joy amidst times of weak demand for cultural events.)

So, there is Mahler. To be more precise: Mahler plus, or rather: Mahler and more.

Because other compositions complement Mahler and the contemporary work which (luckily most often, and this year too) is Hungarian, added as novelties to the Hungarian programme offering. This time, it was Britten.

We had two occasions to see and hear Britten’s children’s opera “Noye’s Fludde”, one of which also served a charitable goal (supporting the Parafónia Orchestra). Any children’s programme should naturally involve children as much as possible – this idea inspired the participation, besides the Budapest Festival Orchestra, of the children’s orchestra organised by the Hungarian Association of Music Schools, as well as the opportunity given to the pupils of the Schola Cantorum Budapestienses (and some adult singers too of course). Some were interested in Britten’s work, while a significant part of the audience was there for personal reasons: to hear their colleagues, their children or their grandchildren play. A friendly production, we could say, offering a musical literature and interpretation experience at the same time (meaning that it is impossible not to be moved by the enthusiastic children). The task was also tailored, thus dispelling fears of a decrease in quality. A special feature of the event was the fact that the organiser and conductor, György Philipp involved the audience in the show in the spirit of Britten’s instructions. And the effect of this gesture could easily be gauged on the smiling and relaxed faces leaving the hall after the show. Indeed, Iván Fischer’s spirit was present imperceptibly in the production dedicated by him, by his demand for quality and most importantly, the desire to admire and evoke admiration for the beauty of music.

The other production – similarly to the Festival Orchestra’s concerts – was presented three times in the Bartók Béla National Concert Hall. The programme opened with a commissioned piece of work, Levente Gyöngyösi’s Symphony No 3 (“Birth”), followed by Mahler’s Fifth. And, similarly, to the composer’s earlier symphonies, it was warmly received. Gyöngyösi was born under a lucky star, being at the right place at the right time. He was found by artistic friends who contributed to the perfection of his talent (thinking of his continuo practice in György Vashegyi’s ensembles), making it possible for him to showcase his talents in diverse compositions. His Symphony No. 1 (featuring a soloist and a choir) was conducted by Gábor Hollerung and enjoyed success with the Budafok Dohnányi Orchestra (in 2009, and not just for a single premiere, but keeping it on the programme and performing it to wider audiences). After his Symphony No. 2 in 2011, he was soon given the opportunity to compose Symphony No 3, as a programmatic continuation of his First. With his impressive directness, Gyöngyösi undertook this programme, which the young Bartók first refused, then felt compelled to identify with, correcting his own views: events actually experienced at the time are reflected in these works. No one knows what impact the symphony would have had if there hadn’t been a presentation with first-hand, authentic and high-quality information from the composer, often relying on the composer’s confessions – but it doesn’t really matter either. What matters is the work was well received, stimulating the composer to write other symphonic pieces and opening up the possibility of acoustic control, allowing him to assess to what extent the orchestration noted on the partiture reflected his ideas.

An audience daring to dream hopes that the worthy, valuable and high-ranking works ordered for the Budapest Mahler Festival will return to the concert programmes of the globally renowned orchestra, giving these occasional compositions the chance to become repertoire pieces.

Undoubtedly, the most important production of the Mahler Festival each year is the Mahler Symphony. This year, we were able to admire the Fifth with a sense of liberation guaranteed beforehand by Iván Fischer’s understanding of the piece. It suggested a feeling of life, giving us a real experience of the specific dimension of so many moods. We could participate in the Mahlerian sounds as well as transcend the limits set by our former musical experiences. The work performed again (who knows for how many times) conveyed a contemporary message, and the magical force of the ingenious orchestrator drew the audience into its enchantment thanks to the suggestive power of interpretation. On Friday I heard the performance with my own ears – while on Saturday, as I hurried to the Mahler film and met the audience that had just listened to the afternoon concert, I could read on their faces the same fascination that enthralled each and every heart. The movie, the MüPa production shown in the concert hall (edited and directed by Judit Várbíró) was actually an adventure into the world of Mahler symphonies with Iván Fischer as the competent guide, offering details from the records of the earlier Mahler festivals. I was informed about the screening almost accidentally, and it seemed there was quite an interest in this complementary programme even without special marketing and promotion. This year, the Mahler Festival was enriched with an exhibition of the materials from the Parisian Médiathèque Musicale Mahler – interesting additions, trivia one could say, that required peace and quiet to view. Luckily, it was open for almost three weeks in the MüPa lobby – offering a chance to learn more from this visual source too.