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Although Iván Fischer admits he has not yet decided whether or not he wants to be a conductor, he has put together an orchestra over thirty years and it is now studied worldwide how they operate. What does the conductor have to do with Steve Jobs and Gaudi? To what extent is the Budapest Festival Orchestra a gypsy orchestra? And could a symphony orchestra have blind fanatics? We accompanied them on their latest European tour to decipher their secret.

An elegant man runs up a red-carpeted flight of stairs.  He is 62 and has just conducted Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. The very symphony which, some believe, teaches people to cry. We spend the final ten minutes on the verge of life and death; every little stir and breath is considered a sin. At the end, every spine-shivering melodramatic forte retreats into an aerial resonance and then comes the slow-motion part.  The conductor’s arms slowly lower and we recede together with the arc of that movement.

And then applause splits the moment. There is a standing ovation by the audience of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw while the musicians of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which turned thirty this year, and Iván Fischer are on the unusually high stage. It is truly difficult to stay unbiased at this point. Especially if someone spends five days with the members of the Orchestra in a tour situation, where we see nothing of an unapproachable conductor with unapproachable musicians, but instead a motley cross-section of society.

A bit like a gypsy orchestra

Although Iván Fischer believes the very life of the Orchestra goes well beyond numbers and positions, it is also interesting that the Festival Orchestra is considered to be one of the top ten symphony orchestras in the world. Also, this year the New York Magazine voted their Marriage of Figaro performance the best classical music event in 2013.

We tried to decipher the secret of why the Orchestra is successful, but our undertaking was destined to fail from the very beginning because there is no rational answer at all. One thing is certain: the magic would not work without Iván Fischer, but he has not yet decided whether or not he wants to be a conductor. You can read our interview with Iván Fisher here.

“The Festival Orchestra is a bit like a gypsy orchestra. What differentiates it from other internationally renowned orchestras is that their work has never been inspired by greed and they have never wanted to be No. 1 in the world. Everything we do here is primarily focused on music.  He is an idealist, in an almost religious way, and he has truly unlimited creativity” – says Vladimir Fanshil, who has worked with Iván Fischer as an assistant conductor for months now.

The young Russian conductor believes great achievements in art come by many gifted people turning a single person’s clear vision into reality; and Iván Fischer planted a very healthy seed thirty years ago. This is how Gaudi’s buildings were constructed and how Steve Jobs built the Apple-empire – as Roland Dénes percussionist shares the latter simile with us. “Similar to Iván, Steve Jobs wanted to do something that no-one has ever done before, and he subjected everything to this vision of his.”

A raw young man: now the benchmark

The Orchestra still has a member who even played at the opening concert. Géza Lajhó double bass player puts it this way: “Back in those days we fought for our very lives to ensure this Orchestra was needed.  Both Iván and I have had a hard life. In spite of all this we played softly, and we were in no way convulsive to prove we were needed. Back then it was cultural scandal in Budapest that Iván had the courage to do such a thing in spite of only being a raw young man at that time.  He appealed to me from the very first moment, I believed in him, and today he is the absolute benchmark. This is a thing of trust.”

Lajho recalls that Fischer used to be very tough, but he is already much more understanding and open. However, his maximalism and stringency with himself and the Orchestra have not faded at all.

“Iván is stricter and more reserved at rehearsals, but these one hundred people can fall apart and he must put the Orchestra in order. The conductor is the Orchestra’s heart, and we are its limbs. One does not exist without the other” – explains István Kurcsák percussionist while flying between Budapest and Toulouse. Lajhó sums up the same as follows: “Every conductor is a chess player, and we are the chess-pieces. If Iván is tired and therefore sways and falters in music, the Orchestra just explodes. And if this happens the other way round, it does really shake us up. He is very powerful, and has an awful lot of tolerance.”

“This is a fight of nerves, but if someone errs, or is in a bad shape, it does not mean they are automatically fired” – adds Zsolt Fejérvári, double bass section leader.

“Mum takes a suitcase and disappears for a while”

“There are no compromises here, there is no way you are unprepared, and as far as work ethics are concerned, we need to set off from a very high level. Iván is very strict and he has extremely high expectations. However, this also means everyone can deal with their profession at a truly high level.  There is always a possibility to improve; it all depends on us – says Ágnes Bíró, an artist of the violin section, who is accompanied by her 12-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter on this tour.

Reform, improvement

Music director Iván Fischer has introduced a number of innovative initiatives. Besides the orchestral concerts and a chamber-music series the orchestra hosts a baroque ensemble playing on original instruments and a contemporary ensemble performing new music. Among the orchestra members, winners of the biannual Sándor Végh competition may also perform as soloists. The initiatives, the unique manner of rehearsing and the new types of concerts have all been the subject of various studies all over the world.

The reason she decided not to travel alone is that she wanted to show her children what happens if “mum takes a suitcase and disappears for a while”. Many orchestra members have children, one of them even four, and being on tour is especially hard for them. It is definitely better to sing Santa Claus songs to a two-and-a-half-year-old little boy at home than through Skype sitting in a hotel lobby. It should also be noted that if someone’s child falls ill, the Orchestra wastes no time in purchasing the air ticket home. The further parents travel, the more anxious they are.  The Far East and America are more critical in this respect.

However, it is only these times that mothers have the opportunity to relax and rehearse more. Everyone gets their own hotel room, which are normally only minutes away from the concert halls so travel does not shorten rehearsal time. István Kurcsák, who also plays in the MÁV Symphony Orchestra, says conditions there are not as good. “Everyone is overloaded, tired and burnt out. Sometimes we simply stumble and fall into a concert hall following a 1,000-kilometre trip, and it feels in how we play music.

“In such a lifestyle it is difficult to keep families together, many of us are divorced” – says Géza Lajhó who, at 57, is already mentally stressed when on tour. “I’ve got really tired of it; I am a bag of nerves when I pull out my suitcase.” However, some orchestra members consider the trip to be a team-building session and see an opportunity to forge members together.

Everyday masks removed

If we, as outsiders, cast a glance at the Orchestra commuting between airports and hotels, we see nothing but a team with the joyful spirit of a school trip. Nevertheless, Iván Fischer believes what happens on the stage is far more important: a true metamorphosis. “That is the place where everyday masks are taken off and veils fall down” – explains István Kurcsik.

In terms of what is required for metamorphosis and where the power and strength of the Orchestra spring from, Ágnes Bíró, for example, thinks the key is the Hungarian temperament and heart combined with professionalism, but Kurcsik too speaks of passion.  He believes this is what sets the Festival Orchestra apart from the cold and rigid professionalism of German or Japanese orchestras, which lack spontaneity. Many say Iván Fischer conducts differently every day (we can also confirm this after five days), he keeps surprising us, and this is how he urges, inspires and enthuses us to focus continuously.

In Géza Lajhó’s opinion, this is coupled with the Orchestra’s ability to react to incessantly changing musical instructions very swiftly. “Iván’s musical language is so clear that we instantly know what he wants us to do.” A clear head, clean hands and clean percussion techniques: if someone does not understand this, shame on them.”

“Immune to stress”

The double basser says we are a true world power in music, and it is the pain and historical loss in our blood that add even more to that “extra bit” – especially as regards Mahler, who dealt a lot with death. “Here, one year of human and music experience counts as five. Iván doesn’t take small steps forward.”

Gyöngyvér Oláh, also a violinist, likewise believes that it is Iván Fischer’s personality which explains the Orchestra’s uniqueness. “He lets personalities open up, therefore one can always improve. He is like a good father: strict and gentle, but conductors are normally unapproachable.”

Fischer’s words in an interview with hvg.hu also support this: “A good conductor guards unity and energises people. Contrary to this, a bad conductor suppresses members’ personalities and instructs them as if they were slaves.” Many agree that Iván Fischer keeps a healthy balance between how he guards the conductor’s respect and friendliness. “He is also able to relieve stress when he paces on the stage, he is immune to stress, but does not allow us to control him either.”

He travels with the Orchestra, stays at the same hotel as musicians do, he plays bridge with them in the hall, and one can strike up a conversation with him anytime. In Amsterdam, for example, he invited violinists to his house there – if they play there, he always invites different members of the Orchestra.

Neither does he care for authoritarian rigidity, nor for VIP conditions; he pedalled home from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on his bicycle, and he drives a Trabant in Hungary. He says he wants to be the last of the Trabant drivers. He has nothing else but his concert clothes, a coffee maker, an iron and several conductor’s batons in his suitcase.

His position requires versatile talents as Zsolt Fejérvári double bass section leader says: apart from being a musician and a conductor, he must be an economist, a psychologist and a sponsorship manager too. However, some would not mind if the Orchestra had its own psychologist or kinesiologist in addition to the conductor, to relieve emotional inhibitions.

No objections, no offences

In spite of possible inhibitions, no-one ever goes to rehearse with a knot in their stomach. On the contrary, Iván Fischer believes it is rare that someone wants to leave the Festival Orchestra, and fluctuation is therefore low. When we ask orchestra members whether their conductor has any negative attributes beside his many positive personality traits, they cannot mention any, and they even explain why: everyone here accepts him as the conductor.

Even if half an hour before a concert, for example, he says at the sitting rehearsal that everything sounds very uniformly. Uniformly ugly. These times the conductor is simply right. No objections, no offences. There is only professionalism, with no mood changes tolerated. “Orchestra life is just like football, and we play well when it really counts. Or it is just like a fridge that you must be able to sell” – explains Fejérvári who has already left the Orchestra twice, despite fluctuation not being typical at all. He then always returned.

He returned for the second time ten years ago, and he does not want to go anywhere else now. First he decided to change because he wanted a solo career. The second time he left when the Orchestra was in such a difficult financial situation that he got scared, and rather went to play in Geneva.

Finances are not a problem today. The Orchestra is sponsored by the Government, the Budapest City Council, supporters and sponsors, but members unanimously say that the musicians of the Festival Orchestra can make an outstanding living by Hungarian standards.  As Gyöngyvér Oláh puts it: we are even paid to feel good.


If we believed so far that only pop and rock bands have fans, we were completely wrong. For example, there is a married couple from Munich, who follow the Orchestra wherever they go, sometimes even eighty times a year – they even accompanied the Orchestra to the Canary Islands. They always sit in the front row, always in the middle, and give Iván Fischer a bouquet made of thirteen red roses at each concert.

Naturally, there are serious fans among Hungarians too. Three people joined this tour at its third stage in Amsterdam, because they definitely wanted to see the Orchestra play once in the impressive Concertgebouw. If we speak of the Festival Orchestra, they say “it is not nonsense to say that every concert is a festive occasion”, mostly because “they stand tall in the hodgepodge of classical music” with their repertoire and Iván Fischer’s musical interpretations. What they get is “an atmosphere experienced nowhere else, which is good to be in, and where one truly feels the musicians’ solidarity towards one another, and therefore they themselves become music itself.”

András Sólyom film and TV director has also become an orchestra fan in the past few months, and is currently making a film of the Festival Orchestra while spending a lot of time with them. He puts in a simple and clever sentence how he sees the success of the Orchestra: “There is a genius at work here.”

hvg.hu, Adél Tossenberger

photo: Adél Tossenberger