Notes of Dissent
newyorker.com Alex Ross
In Hungary, Iván Fischer is shaking up music and politics.
On an icy January night in Budapest, with the temperature descending through the teens, a group of young people huddled outside the Millenáris Teátrum, a performance space on the west side of the Danube. They were waiting to see a midnight concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a thirty-year-old ensemble that has gained international renown not only for its grainy, potent music-making but also for its disruptive approach to the business of putting on concerts. Many curious things have happened at B.F.O. events. The arrangement of the orchestra often changes, with flutes showing up amid the violins, and vice versa. The program is not always announced in advance. On certain nights, the music is picked by an audience member, the chooser determined by a slip of paper drawn from a tuba. Players may start tangoing during Stravinsky’s “Tango”; a live tree may appear onstage during Beethoven’s “Pastorale” Symphony. The B.F.O.’s Midnight Music concerts, aimed at a youthful crowd, are full-on happenings, intended to strip away routine while leaving the music vibrantly intact.
The instigator of this methodical madness is the conductor, composer, opera director, and political gadfly Iván Fischer, who co-founded the B.F.O. in 1983. When I entered the Teátrum, Fischer was pacing around the space, making final preparations. The setup was like nothing I had ever seen. Arrayed among the players’ music stands were dozens of beanbag chairs and foam seats, on which listeners would be invited to sit. (Alternatively, they could sit on bleachers, which had been set up along one side of the space.) The idea was to break down the barrier between orchestra and audience, placing the public in the thick of the action. Fischer was pulling the beanbags this way and that, his face preoccupied, as if he were playing a surreal form of chess.
“Perhaps you should sit here,” he said to me, indicating a beanbag just behind the seats for two lead cellists. He speaks English with lyrical ease, his lightly accented voice skating up and down in pitch and lingering over words that he enjoys. “But, really, you can sit anywhere. You can lie under the piano, if you so want.” I followed his original suggestion. “Very good!” he exclaimed, his eyebrows leaping upward. “You will be embedded with the cellos.” . . .
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