Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews June 11, 2015

“Budapest was the place to visit”

Stefan Englert moved to Budapest over three years ago from his native Germany to take on the role of Executive Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, considered one of the best in the world. We talked to Stefan, who holds a degree in philosophy and was involved in the punk movement during his youth, about success, the role of music director Iván Fischer, the political changeover and why such a highly regarded figure in classical music is involved in social causes. (Balkányi Nóra/ Did you hesitate in moving to Budapest with your family?

Stefan Englert: Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Granted, but...

S. E.: Germans are particularly fond of Hungary and Hungarians. We have not forgotten the key role that Hungary played in bringing down the Iron Curtain. Of course my co-workers were asking me whether I was sure I wanted to make such a big change, due to the far tighter budget compared to what we are used to in Germany. Not to mention the broader political and economic context, right?

S. E: We must not forget that the country is undergoing a significant transition. What do you mean?

S. E.: Before 1989, Hungary was ruled by a closed regime that stifled creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, so transitioning out of this state of mind is a long process. Countries of the ex-Soviet bloc must be given time to see real change take place in people's mentalities. When I was young, Germany’s society was also a closed one. I remember this exactly. Thirty years is just too short for such a transition. After 1989, there were lofty expectations and people were excited: Hungary and Budapest was the place to visit. The rhetoric of “the past x years” is now repeated on a daily basis in public discourse, citing everything that has failed to happen since the political changeover and seeing extremist ideologies gain a foothold. Is patience all we need?

S. E.: This is like a pendulum, constantly swinging from one side to the other. People have lived for two or three decades in the society that robbed them of their freedom but gave them a safe framework and simple answers. By contrast, today's world is changing at a very rapid pace. If someone pulls the rug from under your feet, you fall. Not enough time has passed relative to the scale of change. I assume you were born around the time of the political changeover, but your parents’ generation experienced the former regime first-hand, so it also left its mark on you. You graduated with a degree in philosophy; how did you end up with a career in classical music?

S. E.: By chance. A dear conductor friend organised a festival in 1999 and sought me out right after I had graduated. I was planning to get my PhD, but at that moment, I realised academia was not my calling. I still greatly enjoy philosophy to this day, and one of the most interesting things is seeing two creative minds exchange thoughts over a book, while probably only they alone truly deeply understand their own area of expertise. I later discovered this same thing among artists. Just like philosophers, many musicians also think outside the box. It was a wonderful experience to become immersed in the world of music, and I was stuck. Do you play any instruments?

S. E.: I used to play the piano, but not professionally. I quickly realised that my interests are too diverse. I am not cut out for practising eight hours a day. In the past, you have said that you listened to the Pixies when you were younger. Do you listen to pop music?

S. E.: Nowadays I rarely listen to anything at home (laughs). I try to spend as much time as I can with my children, so I mainly listen to nursery rhymes. As a teenager, I listened to punk and was immersed in that subculture, but I also worked with many jazz musicians. After working in jazz and classical music, in 2011 in Rio de Janeiro Iván Fischer offered you the job of managing the BFO. You already knew each other from earlier. What is your recollection of this offer?

S. E.: I first met Iván in Germany in the 2000s, but I had heard the orchestra play in the late 1990s. I found the uniqueness of the BFO captivating; they truly have a one-of-a-kind sound. We started working together in 2005 and kept in touch from time to time. In 2011, I was not even aware of the fact that they were looking for a new manager. My son had just been born and I was occupied with fatherhood. I then received an e-mail from Iván out of the blue, asking for meeting — and as it happens, we were both on tour in South America. This is how we ended up meeting in Rio. I got a wonderful offer from him, and it was an obvious choice professionally speaking. My family ended up supporting me in my decision, and we made the move in December 2011. At the time of your arrival, Budapest’s governance had just made a proposal to cut funding for the orchestra.

S. E.: Yes, that was during my second week on the job. It was interesting. We had strong arguments in favour of maintaining funding. We started lobbying. Were you expecting anything of this sort upon arrival?

S. E.: Absolutely not. Unfortunately things are generally unpredictable. We are currently working on our 2017/2018 year, but negotiations are still underway for 2015. This makes things a bit more complicated. The situation is not optimal, but it is not impossible. We have to believe that we will find a long-term solution. At the same time, we are shoring up private sector funding. Despite being considered one of the best in the world, the BFO runs on a very tight budget. The Los Angeles Philharmonic has an annual budget of 90 million, compared to our 13 million one. This can only be achieved if we have a shared vision. It is often said of the BFO that the orchestra’s cooperation is outstanding. The other thing that is frequently mentioned is the Music Director Iván Fischer .

S. E.: Yes, Iván is an exceptionally creative mind. He is curious and innovative. His leading role is a difficult one: on the one hand, firm guidance is expected, but on the other hand, dishing out orders is no longer an accepted method. If you look at start-ups and their success stories or Silicon Valley firms, you can see the emergence of novel methods. Excellent results can be achieved if participants share a vision. The same thing applies to the BFO, and I have not seen this anywhere else. Iván came with a sound concept and was able to convince people, while giving them freedom. He is open to hearing musicians’ opinions and regards everyone as an individual artist. A common misconception regarding orchestras is that the conductor directs puppets: musicians can tire of their instrument after a certain time. After learning an instrument from early childhood, people do not want to have their creativity and artistry stifled. Last month, there was much media attention surrounding the feud between ZoltánRácz, head of the Amadinda ensemble and music critic Miklós Fáy. Fáy posted a rant on Facebook against Fáy’s review. Iván Fischer commented that the essence was not the words used by Rácz, but their content — the shift of reviews and the press towards tabloid journalism. What do you think about this feud and the role of the critic?

S.E.: I hear these questions everywhere, all the time. When an artist approaches a review and a critic from a personal standpoint, it creates a sensitive situation. I absolutely understand when artists feel that a written piece is unfair. But I also believe that it is best to take a more casual approach and to look at the situation from a certain distance.  The most important thing for an artist is the audience’s feedback. Feedback from the people who value and understand the artistic process. You are at the helm of one of Hungary's most successful cultural projects. Based on the government's recent decisions, it seems clear that it wants to impose its own ideology in the cultural sphere. For instance, the chancellor of the Music Academy has recently been dismissed due to an internal conflict. Do you feel this influence?

S. E.: No. I am hearing a lot of comments on what is happening, particularly from Iván. He has very clear-cut thoughts on social issues. The BFO, however, is not a political institution, and we do not focus on politics. We try to stay independent. We want to show people the magic and the love of music — this is our true objective. I see that political decision-makers are trying to control certain areas, but they wield no real influence over us. When I arrived and everyone was asking whether the government could repress the orchestra, I always replied that we should concentrate on the music and the role of the BFO in the process of bringing music closer to people. We do not have to be political players and must assume a general position. Music is capable of connecting people. Our message is integration. This is also a political message that we express through music. You just recently wrapped up the Community Week programme series, in the context of which you gave free concerts for the elderly, children and in churches. In other words, you are involved in many social projects — is this also an expression of your position?

S. E.: Yes, these projects are an expression of our position. As I said before: Hungary's frameworks are changing. Anything that does not fit inside this new structure is left out. We are well aware of these social issues and feel that we have a responsibility to stand by those in precarious situations. We really believe that music is capable of connecting people. We have got extremely positive feedback from the communities. For instance last year we toured SOS Children's Villages with the orchestra, performing for children who had never been in contact with classical music before. The key is quality. Many say that you can perform however you want to children, but I think we must give our very best performance for them. They have never seen this many committed musicians as in this project. The response from children is unbelievable. We have an incredible audience. This is the cornerstone of our success.

Another one of our projects brings the orchestra to abandoned synagogues. The memory of World War II and the Holocaust is slowly fading as the number of survivors dwindles. Jewish culture was thriving in rural areas — there is nothing left of this, the local populations are often completely unaware of the past. The Community Week focuses not only on engaging new communities, but also on remembering. Raising awareness and transmitting knowledge help fight prejudice. I think that more broadly speaking this is a socio-political approach. We would like to expand this initiative to other Eastern European countries as well. Memories must be maintained, otherwise we will commit the same mistakes. Just as important is the preservation of church traditions and visiting retirement homes. You will hold a concert on 18 June at Heroes' Square, with the participation of children living in difficult conditions. How did you cooperate with these children?

S. E.: The Venezuelan El Sistema was our point of reference. This method of teaching music has been called into question due to the country's situation, but I think the basic idea is wonderful, and I have had a personal experience with it. I once met a 16-year-old boy whose life was entirely transformed by music. He was an exceptionally talented and ambitious boy, who had been forced to steal in the past to sustain his family. El Sistema helped him travel to Germany where he was mentored by musicians. After two years, he joined the Berlin Philharmonic. Music is capable of giving people perspective, and our aim is to set a good example through these integration projects. For the June concert, 12 choreographers have been working with 20-25 children in each school, twice a week since February.  It is wonderful to see how committed these children are. They will be able to show what they are capable of, hopefully to 8-10,000 people. We would like to repeat this every year, not just as a one-time short-term project. Do you plan to follow up on the children?

S. E.: Yes, we must think sustainably. We would also like to include other children, while keeping track of the ones we worked with in the past. It is pointless to start something and then abandon it. If we forget about the children, we will only be promoting our own brand. But we really do want to give them a chance.

We are also involving young people in other ways. The BFO’s night-time Midnight Music beanbag concerts are so popular that it is difficult to get tickets. We also tour 40 schools with the orchestra every year and showcase instruments to the classes. I think this is one of the best ways to transmit the love of music, by allowing children to try out instruments. Music is capable of launching and opening so much within an individual. The role of music in teambuilding is underestimated; we would like to deepen and reinforce this role. All of this is important not just to create new audiences for ourselves, but also to create a broader community receptive to classical music.