Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews June 06, 2013

“Official music-making is killing music”

Iván Fischer, born in Budapest in 1951, has been one of the most sought-after conductors in the world for years. Thirty years ago he established his Budapest Festival Orchestra, which has been rated in the top ten orchestras of the world by UK magazine Gramophone. This season, Fischer became the Chief Conductor of the Konzerthaus. And he already feels at home in Berlin, a city he describes as “free, tolerant and cheerful”. (by Klemens Hippel)

Mr Fischer, your involvement with the Konzerthaus was accompanied with great expectations; is that a burden?

I didn’t see it that way at all. But when people have such expectations, this goes hand in hand with more interest and a certain level of enthusiasm. And I definitely need that to achieve something. Berlin has so many orchestras, not least the Berliner Philharmoniker with its renowned international reputation. And we also have this orchestra and this concert hall in the former East Berlin, which is now the most beautiful heart of the city. It is perhaps even the most beautiful part of Berlin. But the fact is that you always want to prove yourself. Wanting to achieve something is a very healthy way to live your life. It’s much better than thinking: “We’re good enough anyway”.

With your own ensemble, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, you have made it into the top ten international orchestras – what is possible with the Konzerthausorchester Berlin?

Being recognised like that is very nice, and you’re happy about it, but that ultimately wasn’t the target. Why does an orchestra play, what are we actually doing? You need to realise that it is not a competition, you are not competing with others. It is about the cultural needs of the general public. You serve a community that wants to listen to music. And there is only one way to make people happy with music: you have to love the music you are playing, and share this love with the public. If you are praised and receive awards, that’s nice, but the music needs to be a success in the concert hall. The people sit there and you have to touch the internal child in them, the one that wants beautiful experiences, that wants to be uplifted and extolled. You need to keep this in mind, and then the awards will take care of themselves.

On the Konzerthaus website it reads: “I only conduct pieces for which I have the key.“ – Is there always “the” key for a given piece of work?

I think so. I compose pieces myself and I know how this process works. You write something, but that’s only notes. A mood, a feeling, something that fascinates me – there is always something behind this. One needs to understand this and be able to identify with it. When I conduct Beethoven, I have to do two things: understand what he wanted to say, and convey the same thing on the stage. Just like an actor identifies with his role. I would be bragging if I said every composer manages to do this. Some make a better job of it than others.

Is composing part of your profession as a conductor?

These two aspects are very closely intertwined: if you compose yourself, you understand composers better. And if you don’t compose, you then have a very strong urge to be creative, and “not just” want to interpret. Sometimes you then go too far. I immediately recognise the frustration of conductors who are not also composers, and always want to say: write something, it will calm you down. (laughs)

You yourself were a student of two very different musicians, Hans Swarowsky and Nikolaus Harnoncourt – who influenced you more?

Probably Harnoncourt more than Swarowsky. He was prosaic and belonged to the “New Objectivity” generation, where you weren’t supposed to be sentimental.  This generation was anti-romantic. You still see traces of it with conductors like Pierre Boulez for example. Harnoncourt, by contrast, opened our eyes to the fact it was much more. Music is not just a series of notes, there is a message lingering behind. This interested me a lot more.

So what, for you, is the role of a conductor?

I see my role in preserving the unity of an orchestra. You have 100 musicians in front of you, one is shy, the other temperamental. The conductor has to guide these talents in a given direction to express one single message. That is our task. One should not believe that the conductor gives the musicians instructions for them to follow. It doesn’t work that way.  A musician needs to present a piece in a creative manner, full of soul, conviction and risk. Of course, occasionally you do need to correct some errors, but then you are like a cleaning lady. This is a role we also have to play, but a good conductor is only 10 percent cleaning lady and 90 percent a source of inspiration.

What is the difference between instructing and inspiring?

Imagine that the flute is playing more slowly than the viola. Here we could tell the violas to “slow down please”, or the flutes to “speed up please”. That’s the boring way. You can also say to the violas: “Concentrate on the flute here”, then I engage their own creativity, and they realise themselves that something is too fast or too slow.  When someone learns an instrument, their creativity unfolds and they have to develop their own spheres of interest, taking an interest in everything.  Then they enter the harbour of a symphony orchestra, and suddenly, the level of creativity demanded plummets.  They don’t have to think, they don’t have to come up with programmes and develop their personalities – nobody is interested in their ideas.  The duality of creative training and non-creative work is a dead-end street, and this whole concept should be revisited.  We have to utilise the creativity of musicians as this official approach to playing is killing music.

At the Konzerthaus you are also looking for new types of concert – why?

Our conventional type of concert often does not suit the music. Schubert composed his tunes for a lounge, where there were perhaps thirty people sitting around a piano. We are now in halls in front of 1000 people – that’s not very Schubert-esque. Or what about pieces designed to surprise, Beethoven’s Ninth, for example, was a revolution: Everyone was surprised when human voices suddenly appeared in the symphony. This is something completely different from the works performed week-in week-out, which are very predictable. Sometimes I find it is “normal” concerts that are a bit strange. This is why I try to experiment: what does the piece actually mean, what message does it have? And I endeavour to realise these in a way that conveys the original idea. For example, we organised a Rachmaninov evening, which began with a piano song. I think this is important because it shows a crucial side of Rachmaninov. The Russian language is instrumental for him, and this would be missing in a conventional orchestral concert.

But the Surprise Concert has not been on the calendar this season.

That will come again, just not too often. A surprise concert is great because you don’t have to commit yourself in the same way. In this business we always need to know two years in advance what we will be performing, when and with whom. This sometimes deprives us of the space we need to implement something spontaneous, something that crops up today for tomorrow. This is what the Surprise Concert offers.

You also regularly invite the general public to dress rehearsals...

I look on this as an opportunity because it unites the different ideas and notions of the public and the orchestra. An orchestra wants to clear up technical issues before a performance: is this note short or long, is the speed ok, is this a ritenuto... The public behind me live in another world. They want to know what it is, what it is about, what it says to me, what do I feel. This is very useful.  If I say to the public in the dress rehearsal what we want to achieve, in two sentences, this is also noted by the orchestra. And the public naturally get some insight into how an orchestra functions. This brings the orchestra and the people together.