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In collaboration with Zoltán Kocsis, the Budapest Festival Orchestra conducted by Iván Fischer made its debut in the grand hall of the Academy of Music in Budapest thirty years ago at Christmas in 1983. To celebrate this anniversary, the orchestra organised a request concert in the Budapest Congress Centre, the conductor was Iván Fischer. The programme was decided by the audience, and so it was a surprise for both the audience and the artists.

Thirty years is a significant amount of time in the life of a symphony orchestra. The Festival Orchestra (BFO) has been one of the finest orchestras of our times for about fifteen years. Financial problems were an issue in the past. The orchestra’s work is characterised by the highest possible demand for quality and artistic veracity, i.e. the fact that founder and conductor Iván Fischer was never afraid to stand up against human and cultural injustices.

Since 2010 it is possible that government figures responsible for cultural issues sometimes find this fact uncomfortable, but they nevertheless, quite rightly, support the orchestra. For decades, the Festival Orchestra has enjoyed continuous popularity among audiences and the recognition of the music profession, with success in concert halls all over the world, from Berlin to New York and from London to Vienna. And it really does do credit to Hungarian music culture.

“I believe and hope that together with the best and most authentic artists I am treading a path that I simply call a joyful and meaningful life. A path where each rehearsal, each concert and each recording are important steps. A path that has meaning, awakens reflections, and always brings joy, an experience and a sense of release for everyone” – said founder and conductor Iván Fischer in an earlier interview with Hungarian newspaper Népszava.

The past thirty years in the Festival Orchestra’s life are synonymous with the highest standards – in a period which is quite mediocre compared to the great predecessors – devotion, special exaltation, and demand for quality in playing music together. Of course, there is a need for overwhelming routine and the instrumental knowledge of soloists.

Performances by the Festival Orchestra are never a matter of routine; it is not about “service” in the bad sense, all the productions are fresh experiences, whether they are classical masterpieces, modern or contemporary music. Whether Beethoven, Bartók, Mahler or, let’s say, the monumental Mass in B minor by J. S. Bach is played,  if the musicians and the conductor do not enjoy the experience of the performance, neither does the audience.

Musicians and audiences can only enjoy this experience if the orchestra and the conductor put boundless energy and profound emotion into the performance, where all the beats and phrases carry a meaning and an artistic message, where musicians and the conductor know the partiture and the instrumental parts with scientific accuracy. It is no coincidence that the Festival Orchestra only invites guest conductors who are prepared for this kind of thoroughness, to be fully and intimately acquainted with the pieces, and devote themselves to playing music together in the most perfect way.

“The world has changed a lot – and not for the better. Conductors today, even the majority of the great orchestra leaders, settle for giving only a few instructions to the otherwise experienced and prepared musicians. Routine is important, but routine per se ruins the experience, it makes the great inspiring pieces ordinary or even tedious, and what always needs to be an enjoyable experience and cathartic happiness in playing music becomes mediocre and ordinary as a result.

It is not worthwhile performing as a routine since there is no point in playing music if it ceases to be an experience, and loses much of its artistic impact. Then we are unworthy of the great masters’ opuses that show us the whole world” – said Iván Fischer in our afore-mentioned interview.

And added: “Although I do respect conductors like Furtwängler and Toscanini, I don’t think of them as the only beatific masters. Despite all their greatness, I don’t consider these music dictators, who actually have power over life and death, as models to be copied in all things. I am also averse to people angling for the popularity of star businessmen or diplomats.

It is difficult to explain what type of conductors – those of the third kind, so to speak, including me – I find ideal today. It is worthwhile looking at those frantic basketball coaches squawking with passion by the court, who eventually rouse their team’s fanaticism. Hasidic rabbis also come to mind, who keep their community together with their help, advice and love regarding anything in life – I think this is my artistic world.

Today, a really good and demanding conductor can only accomplish real and unique artistic achievements with this passionate devotion and constant presence. I not only need to be the conductor, but also a really good friend – or the spiritual father I would say if I didn’t feel ashamed – of my musicians”. The secret of the Budapest Festival Orchestra – if it can be looked upon as a secret at all – is that all musicians are determined to give their best at the rehearsals and at the concerts. Precision, extensive instrumental knowledge and full concentration are very important indeed, but all that is not enough.

Exaltation and demand for quality are also needed, which ensure that playing music is always an enjoyable experience and no doubts are cast on artistic veracity – just like in the case of the finest orchestras today. And there’s one more thing – said conductor Fischer – joy! Playing music should always make the orchestra forget about the ordinary routine of life, because it is only in this way that audiences will likewise put all the endless troubles of everyday life behind them and become joyful. Three decades is a long time! Still, the orchestra cannot be satisfied with this remarkable achievement. They must take on new challenges. In these dreary times, audiences, who are a mass of aches and pains, need musical experiences just like an intellectual transfusion; the orchestra has to prove it again and again both in Hungary and in the whole world that there is a – Hungarian! – orchestra which brings a cathartic experience to the needy and therefore very grateful audience.


István Szász, nepszava.hu