Opening up to a wider public
Interview with Stefan Englert, Managing Director of Budapest Festival Orchestra
What projects have you managed to carry out in your first six months at Budapest Festival Orchestra?
In the middle of June the orchestra made a strategic change in terms of ticket sales for individual concerts. Earlier it was always rumoured, which was to a great extent true, that there were no tickets for the concerts of the Festival Orchestra. In fact all our concerts were part of our package for season-ticket holders. Only a very limited number of tickets were available on free sale. We’ve changed that system because we would like to expand our audience for strategic reasons. We want to continue to offer our season-ticket holders high-quality concerts in the same way as previously, but we also want to create a pool of concerts that enables us to attract new audiences.
What kind of numbers are we talking about?
Previously of the 1,600 tickets available per performance at the Palace of Arts (MÛPA), on average 150-200 were on free sale. Now there are concerts with a similar ratio but also concerts with roughly 1,000 tickets on free sale. On average that means 500 tickets on free sale per concert this season.
Isn’t it risky to rely increasingly on free ticket sales in these days?
No, we continue to have the same number of season-ticket holders. That speaks for the quality of the orchestra, especially at a time when one might rather expect that number to fall. We now have two aims: one is to keep our loyal audiences happy with concerts of the quality that they are used to, and the other is to attract new audiences. Of course, it’s always risky if you offer tickets for free sale. There are also various new costs, such as for transactions and marketing. However, we want to give more people the chance to be part of the life of the orchestra.
It is based not least on the simple consideration that typically it is only people who have attended our concerts that will become season-ticket holders one day. On the other hand, it is also because of the reality that we are living in a time when attending a series of ten concerts is a great challenge for an increasing number of music enthusiasts. More and more people are so tied up career-wise that they cannot attend that number of concerts. If somebody purchases the right to attend ten concerts but only actually goes to five, then sooner or later they will ask themselves if it’s worth it. That’s why strategically we want to give all customer groups the option and have created different season tickets. We are offering two series with five concerts each and one with four concerts.
Why has the change come now? Was it your idea?
No, such a change has been in the air for several years. When I took over the post from my predecessor Tamás Körner there was already a specific strategic plan aimed at widening our audience in just such a way. In the last 28 years as music director Iván Fischer has achieved incredible things with Budapest Festival Orchestra. Like every organism, however, we need to try to develop further in an organic way. The orchestra will face new challenges. That’s why we need to open up to a wider public and increasingly to sponsors.
Who are you targeting in particular?
We definitely want to attract young people. That’s why we’ve launched some new activities. For example, we put on one-hour moderated concerts at the Millenáris in January and May called “Midnight Music”. In order to overcome inhibitions further, the orchestra plays in casual dress at those evenings. The first two events were very well received. We can see from our Facebook community that these concerts have a great appeal. That’s why we’re planning to extend the series. Our Zarathustra competition in May also targets the same group. In May schoolchildren were invited to produce a film about Zarathustra. The results were then shown to the public at a large concert at MÛPA. We also want to extend such projects. We want young people to be actively engaged with music and to involve their own creative potential. I think we can grow a great deal in that field.
Although these days it’s not so easy to get young people fired up about classical music…
I think we can get ourselves heard by presenting a high-quality product and finding the right words to appeal to young people and show them what classical music is actually about. I think inhibitions are often caused simply by the unfamiliar. I have often experienced very positive reactions when young people come into contact with music and see how much joy music can give to both the musicians and the audience. Young people often like to be creatively involved. We need to appeal to their individual creativity and initiative. Iván Fischer also sets out to achieve such creative interaction within Budapest Festival Orchestra. The request concerts, which we have offered twice, also point in that same direction. Of course that requires the orchestra to be very flexible because 200 to 300 works could be selected. There was no vote beforehand; it really was an entirely spontaneous process. I don’t think there is any other top orchestra in the world capable of such a feat. I regard the Festival Orchestra as the most innovative top orchestra worldwide at the current time. That opens up many new possibilities for us.
Isn’t there a risk of dumbing down if you let the audience decide what you play?
I don’t believe there’s such a risk. On both such evenings pieces by Kodály and Bartók that are thought of as “difficult” were selected. It wasn’t a case of us having to offer something like “The Best of Classics”. On the contrary: the audience needs and indeed wants to be challenged. I think it would be a huge problem if we didn’t fulfil our duty of introducing our guests to all kinds of genres, styles and composers. If we only play Mozart and Beethoven, then we are not taking our audience seriously. The audience wants more.
But couldn’t that be a problem precisely when it comes to attracting more young people to concerts?
I don’t see that as a problem. Young people in particular have a great affinity with contemporary classical music. There are many popular contemporary composers who have had a considerable influence on popular music. The founders of the techno movement have said that Karl-Heinz Stockhausen was the most influential composer for them. After all, he was the first to experiment with electronic music. The boundaries are very fluid today. Stockhausen experimented to an incredible extent with different technologies in a special studio in Cologne set up for him by West German Broadcasting (WDR). He was one of the greatest influences on Kraftwerk and other pioneers of the techno movement.
At this year’s Sziget Festival we want to draw attention to such parallels with a showcase concert given by our percussionists. Taking part in the festival is also part of our strategy of becoming more open. We want to show young people that we can offer them something very attractive that is far from being fusty, a popular cliché with regard to classical music. But the Festival Orchestra especially is far from being antiquated. We are anything but dry archivists. We want to make every evening a celebration and that is also the motto of our orchestra.
For example, we recently introduced a new contemporary music series. That is daring in one respect, but it is also logical because there is barely any other country that has produced as many important composers in the 20th century as Hungary. Their music has always played a large role in our repertoire and we would like to take that even further. We want increasingly to provide a platform to contemporary composers so that we can show the audience: “Look, what is being done today is the music of our time. And this music is very good music – if it is interpreted well.”
Can you really attract a wider audience with contemporary music?
Of course there is the Darmstadt school, which is very abstract. However, there are now also many young composers who are reclaiming tonal music. At the Mahler Festival in September we will perform a piece by the Hungarian composer Levente Gyöngyösy. That’s wonderful music that’s not difficult to listen to. There’s also such music by Schönberg. You simply need to engage with him differently, and move away a little from simply seeing such pieces in a structural and intellectual way. There are many sensual aspects to Schönberg’s music. I think it’s not so important what school a composer belongs to. What counts is that their music aspires to and is capable of expressing emotion. Music can express things that cannot be expressed with language. But of course among contemporaries there are good and less good composers. In 100 years it will be seen what music of our age has survived. I’m convinced that will include at least three Hungarians: György Ligeti, György Kurtág and Péter Eötvös. Hungary has produced music of unbelievable quality. They are real giants of composition. Péter Eötvös is probably one of the most successful opera composers of the present day. For me, coming from Germany, that had an important bearing on my decision to come here. Hungary as a musical nation brings forth incredible imagination and creativity. Budapest Festival Orchestra has produced the kind of quality level in 30 years that other orchestras in the world would need 100 years to achieve. That is thanks not least to the visionary strength of Iván Fischer, and of course the hard work of the musicians together with him. It is a real miracle that so much could be achieved in that short time.
With all due respect to young audiences, to keep your sponsors happy you need an audience aged between 30 and 50 with strong purchasing power.
We are doing so by increasing the sale of tickets for individual concerts. After all, these are people with limited time on their hands. That’s why we also need to offer them more than just concerts. We want to provide them with concert events that they can also use as communications platforms, for their customers and business partners. We need to endeavour to bring our high-quality concerts performed in a unique ambience into connection with high-quality companies. I can also envisage special sponsor lounges in the medium term. There’s no law that business relationships need to be forged and strengthened solely on golf courses, tennis courts and other similar venues. The connection between the business world and the orchestra is an obvious one because an orchestra is none other than a well-functioning small firm. Today there are many training methods whereby orchestras are used as a model to illustrate certain principles of company leadership. There are very many parallels.
What kind of parallels?
How can you get a heterogeneous team of around 100 highly qualified employees to work in the same direction? Just like business leaders, the conductor needs to use his personality and knowledge to lead the way. In September we will give a seminar to Deutsche Bahn (German Rail) on just that subject. That will be a test. We can also imagine offering such seminars in Hungary. Managers can pick up a lot of tips from us. How can you motivate people to give their all to a creative process for the sake of the whole? Of course that means bringing in their skill and their own ideas, rather than being servile. That’s the only way to end up with a result that is more than the sum of its parts, and that is what makes an excellent concert. Our orchestra illustrates all that in an exemplary fashion. I think that is one of the reasons why we are so popular with business people. Even now we have numerous noted company leaders and business personalities among our regular guests.
How do you explain the slight rise in your number of season-ticket holders in the past year?
I think music and art provide intellectual nourishment, as well as hope to people who desperately need it in difficult times. Theatres in Hungary are also well attended at the moment.
Have you lowered your season-ticket prices?
No, not at all. We’ve kept them at the same level, not least because we believe that a certain quality has a certain price. You also have to pay more for an Audi than for a Mazda.
What kind of support do you get from the state?
The city of Budapest had to decrease slightly the subsidies that it gives us because of its tight budget situation, but with the stated intention of returning to the previous level next year. The Hungarian government has no doubts about the high value of our orchestra and has declared its readiness to make up for the shortfall from its own budget. This year we have very good prospects of receiving the same subsides as last year, even though that is not yet 100 per cent certain.
How is your financing structure?
Subsidies account for roughly a third of the total budget. That is very little in comparison to the situation in Germany. There subsidies make up between 80 and 95 per cent of orchestras’ budgets. We cover the other two-thirds of our budget from contributions from sponsors and revenues from ticket sales, Last year we managed to acquire sponsorship money of around HUF 500 million (EUR 1.75 million). Around a fifth of our budget comes from ticket sales, which is a very healthy proportion in comparison to Germany.
Have the proportions changed since the crisis hit?
Hungary is experiencing an economic crisis but so far the orchestra is not. Of course we have to fight for our budget each year. I am anticipating that the proportion of privately financed revenues will continue to rise. Of course we will also do our best to secure an increase in state financing. What we have to offer deserves to be supported by the state. The contribution that we make to Hungary’s cultural life has a very high value for society as a whole. What we have here is unique. It mustn’t be put at risk by unnecessary cost-cutting measures. There would be nothing worse. Sooner or later people would notice, sponsors would jump ship and so on. Instead we should further develop the uniqueness of our orchestra.
Presumably your foreign tours also bring in a lot of money.
No, our intensive touring activity leaves us with neither a profit nor a loss.
What is the purpose of your tours then?
There are certain markets, like the German or US markets, that are important for world-class orchestras. In New York and in London we have Friends of the Budapest Festival Orchestra circles. Recently we also established such a circle in Germany.
Why do you go to such trouble?
We want to show internationally what a wonderful orchestra Hungary has. We see ourselves as something like a cultural ambassador for Hungary. That is one of the reasons why the Hungarian government supports us with public funds. Iván Fischer is an official “ambassador of Hungarian culture”.
What do your international performances bring the orchestra specifically?
Like every world-class orchestra we naturally want to compare ourselves with other orchestras in the most important concert metropolises of the world. That’s why New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt are so important to us. We can only maintain our high level if we expose ourselves to direct competition with other top orchestras. The purpose is not to show that we’re better but to see where we stand and to learn from one another. The reactions of the organisers, the specialist press and the audience are extremely important indicators to us.
What other reasons do you have?
It’s a question of motivating our musicians. Of course we want to keep the best musicians here with us. An important reason for them to stay is the knowledge that they play for one of the world’s top orchestras, which is invited to play in the world’s most illustrious concert halls. It is really something special to play for this orchestra and contribute to a musical level that would not be attainable with most of the world’s other orchestras. All our musicians are taken seriously here as artists. It’s the philosophy of the orchestra that each individual orchestra musician is seen not as an instrumentalist but as an artist by Iván Fischer. I think that recognition of the artistry of every single musician contributes greatly to our success. That creates a very strong sense of identification with the orchestra. Intrinsic values are very important to us. Of course financial remuneration also has to be more or less in order. We cannot allow the difference in salaries from those of musicians in the world’s other top orchestras to be too great. We need to keep that gap as small as possible. That is also one reason why we need to keep on improving the financial situation of the orchestra. We need to convince politicians, as well as individuals and firms. We also want to attract more temporary visitors to the city.
First, we want to show the world-class standard that Budapest can offer. “Here is an orchestra that is invited to perform in the best concert halls of the world. Take advantage of the opportunity to see it in Budapest. See what incredible potential Hungary has in the cultural field.” Second, expats who attend concerts here are naturally excellent international ambassadors for us. Third, that sphere of people is naturally also very important to us in terms of sponsorship.
How important is the release of CDs?
It’s very important but not in terms of revenues. CDs are very important marketing instruments. They are a good demonstration of what the orchestra is capable of. Recordings are very important within the music scene, as a calling card both for organisers and for the media that write about the orchestra. All the accolades that we receive for our CDs, and we receive many, are important to enhance the image of the orchestra. In financial terms we are very fortunate that our CD business finances itself, not least because we have an excellent partner, Channel Classics, which is very innovative in terms of recording technology. It’s a pioneer in multi-channel technology. It suits an innovative orchestra like ours extremely well. Each year we produce two CDs. At the beginning of the year we released Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) by Igor Stravinsky. The second release in September will be Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 right in time for the orchestra’s international Mahler festival.
What about new media?
We aim to make much greater use of the internet as part of our strategy of attracting new audiences. Even now there is the possibility of hearing our concerts and rehearsals via Live Stream. That’s a very important aspect of our communication. We would like as many people as possible to be able to experience the artistic process.
Where would you like the orchestra to be in five years? What other projects do you have in mind?
I work for one of the best orchestras in the world. It’s hard to get to the top but even harder to remain there. We need to work constantly to maintain those quality standards and keep on trying to improve the orchestra. To achieve that we also need the appropriate financial framework. We need better funding. We need a more focused international presence. Our presence needs to be even stronger on the markets that are important in terms of our revenues. We set ourselves great challenges but we are able to meet them. In Iván Fischer and the orchestra’s wonderful musicians we have a unique musical treasure around which the Budapest Festival Orchestra revolves, and that needs to be communicated emphatically. To draw a parallel with football – it’s not the theory that matters but what happens on the pitch.