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The Budapest Festival Orchestra discovered the significance of music education for children and young people as early as its establishment in 1983.

Since then, the Budapest Festival Orchestra led by Iván Fischer has become one of the top ten symphony orchestras in the world, while its conductor is reputed to be one of the world’s most innovative and most inspiring orchestra leaders – thanks to the BFO’s intense international touring and a series of recordings for Philips and later for Channel Classics. They perform in the most important international music centres in the world, and are permanent guests of international music festivals. In recognition of Iván Fischer’s career, he was ceremoniously elected an honorary member of the British Royal Academy of Music in 2013, an elite “company” of 300 “members”, including great musicians from the past such as Mendelssohn, Franz Liszt, Stravinsky, Horowitz, and Ruggiero Ricci, as well as soloists and conductors living today such as Itzhak Perlman, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Claudio Abbado, Plácido Domingo, Sir Paul McCartney, Cecilia Bartoli, András Schiff, and Pinchas Zukerman. Last year the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Wagner recording was ranked first in the list of Top 20 Specialist Classical Albums.

Our successors before them

Then there is the stewardship of the audience and the community as well as the informative – in the best, fullest sense of the word – performances and concerts, all very important to the music director. Who could ever forget the free “stool” concerts, attracting masses of people to the “Budapest Farewell” concerts at Heroes’ Square for years? Which classical music fan wouldn’t know about the now traditional Mahler Festival signalling the beginning of the concert season in the autumn, the orchestra’s Bridging Europe – Európai Hidak festival, or the joint productions with the Palace of Arts: from staged opera performances to famous and popular music marathons (whose “main character” this year is one of the greatest minds of music history, Johann Sebastian Bach, chosen by Iván Fischer)?

The Budapest Festival Orchestra recognised the importance of music education for children and young people as early as its establishment, not only because they want to educate the next generation of concert-going classical music audiences, but also because as professional musicians they know that the love of music and listening to/playing music “bring people together”, that live music not only excites the musical interest of young generations, but also strikes a chord in their mind, and is very refreshing to their emotions and thoughts. This is why they launched the “Cocoa Concerts” series for children between 5 and 12.

Upon the wings of imagination

The artistic director of the one-hour concerts featuring chamber musicians is Iván Fischer, who offers something imaginary to cling to, close to children’s emotions and imagination, upon interpreting and experiencing the pieces performed. The latest concert on 10 May – based on the programme advert alone – seemed rather serious even for “adult” eyes.

This is why I was curious to see (and even had some kind of “premiere fever”) how my grandchild, who has always loved music and has been learning to play the piano for six months, would react to the May piece of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons (12 pieces for piano, one for each month of the year), the Six Studies in English Folk Song by 19th-century English composer Vaughan Williams, the String Symphony in D major by Mendelssohn, the Pastorale scored for five instruments by Stravinsky, the Sonata in G major by Jean Barrière, or the A Hundred Bars for Tom Everett, a piece for bass trombone and percussion instruments composed by the recently deceased contemporary Hungarian composer András Szőllőssy, as well as the Mosgrad Express by another contemporary composer, Gérard Berlioz.

I was certain that everything depends on the “presentation”, i.e. the interpretation and Iván Fischer in particular, who agreed to compère the pieces (and who, based on the success of the “Cocoa Concerts”, has even showed talent for “addressing” children).

And so it was… Before playing the pieces, he reinterpreted the underlying topic of the given piece by giving the children glimpses of comprehensible “images” – of animals in particular – accompanied by gentle humour in a few sentences. Listening to it, I remembered the warning of the recently deceased, wise psychologist Péter Popper: “Let the sunset, a mountain, a tree, a flower or an animal impress themselves on us. When listening to music, let’s just forget the composer, the conductor and the individual sections of instruments – and let’s abandon ourselves to the sound.”

Who is drumming here?

With Vaughan Williams’s studies in English folk song played on a bassoon and a piano, Fischer associated the idea of an ostrich family (father, mother, child), Mendelssohn’s String Symphony evoked the plodding of four turtles – of various sizes and types – as seen in his childlike imagination, while the bass trombone in the Szőllőssy piece conjured up the dialogue between a three-horned dinosaur that lived tens of millions of years ago (a Triceratops, which is so popular today with nursery kids and school pupils) and a drumming prehistoric woodpecker. Thanks to the musicians’ play on percussion instruments, those at the concert could even experience how slowly Gerard Berlioz’s express train departed and clattered along before slowing down to finally arrive at the station.

Contributing musicians clearly played with joy and great enthusiasm; as if they had been performing in a concert hall at the Palace of Arts instead of a rehearsal hall.

The narration, the pieces of music and the performance style together touched the underage audience. So much so that having heard a composition played, children enthusiastically clapped their little hands; before beginning the “Cocoa Concerts” Iván Fischer nicely introduced (as always) applause as a proper way of showing delight after each piece performed to an audience not quite so familiar with classical music concert etiquette.

Although he did not refer to rapturous applause, the very young audience instinctively gave one.

Then finally came the encore of a concert with a family atmosphere, story-telling and an introduction to music and instruments – in the form of hot cocoas served in spotted mugs.

While walking home with my grandchild hand in hand, I suddenly remembered the renowned conductor once saying that the essence of listening to music is the metamorphosis, i.e. the spiritual and emotional “trance”.

It was only later at home that I found an article I approve of from start to finish: “If we speak of the Festival Orchestra, they say it is not nonsense to declare that every concert is a festive occasion. What they give is an atmosphere experienced nowhere else, one that is good to be in, and where one truly feels the musicians’ solidarity towards one another, and therefore they themselves become music itself.”