Both audiences and music life in Hungary noted the concert held on 26 December 1983, when the Budapest Festival Orchestra sporting the very best of Hungarian musicians introduced themselves. During the decades since then the orchestra has created new forms of how an orchestra is structured and plays music, built up an enormous returning audience, become a celebrated guest of the most prestigious concert halls, and it is currently considered one of the ten best orchestras in the world. The orchestra’s freshness and flexibility, its intense and emotionally gripping play, and its attention to everyday life all make the BFO an utterly unique and excellent orchestra, which is celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. Zsuzsanna Réfi’s retrospective article in the 2013 winter edition of Gramofon (gramofon.hu)
“We must state for the record, out loud and without hesitation, that on Tuesday and Wednesday nights there was no better orchestra on the planet than the Budapest Festival Orchestra.” - opined The New York Times in 2011. However, the orchestra not only gives excellent concerts. Conducted by Iván Fischer, who has been deemed by the German Klassik Radio to be one of the ten best conductors in the world this year, the BFO has launched many special initiatives. These include, for instance, the One Forint and Cocoa Concerts, music marathons and the international festival series at the Palace of Arts (Müpa). The BFO pays great attention to educating the audience: it organises “The Taste of Musical Instruments” for children, it tours Hungary with a children’s opera, and film tenders are organised for young people whom they also look forward to meeting at the Midnight Music concerts. The orchestra is also involved in the national talent programme, and pays special attention to children living with disabilities. They continue to come up with new ideas each year to share the joy of music with audiences even more.
All this started with Glinka, Mozart and Rachmaninoff’s pieces performed at the Music Academy on 26 December 1983. There were huge expectations regarding the Festival Orchestra’s debut that night, and the musicians committed play did not disappoint. Audiences craving for good concerts could barely wait for the continuation. The reason for this was that the people who played together were all enthusiastic, open-minded and excellent musicians, who happily joined the two founders, Iván Fischer and Zoltán Kocsis. The founders – facing envy and conflicts alike – established an orchestra which worked completely differently from Hungarian orchestral practice. In the beginning they gave only three or four concerts per year, which nevertheless truly proved to be celebratory moments in the Hungarian music scene thanks to the particularly high quality rehearsals and above-average requirements. A dynamic orchestra with youthful enthusiasm, which is both creative and deeply sensitive to music, increasingly took shape. Then in 1989 the first concert abroad was performed in London, with roaring success.
Until 1992 the Festival Orchestra worked as an occasional ensemble, soon, however, they had no choice but to become a permanent orchestra if they wanted to develop further. The Budapest City Council agreed to pay the wages on condition that all other operating expenditure of the orchestra is financed from other sources. Iván Fischer’s idea was that the concert costs should be paid for by the Budapest Festival Orchestra Foundation established at the time, which was immediately co-founded by 15 Hungarian and multinational corporations and banks. The orchestra added Budapest to its name, and received the former Óbuda Cinema in Selmeci utca, which eventually became its rehearsal hall. The work in building the company soon bore fruit: the orchestra played increasingly well to its audience of regulars totalling more than 10,000 people, and the number of season-ticket holders increased to several thousand. The Coffee Concerts, and the Cocoa Concerts for children, became widely popular, just like the One Forint Dress Rehearsals at noon. Meanwhile, the orchestra attracted a substantial number of civil sponsors. The orchestra was asked to perform in increasingly prestigious locations abroad: they first performed at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1993, and made their first overseas tour one year later, playing in the United States of America and Canada. Critics described their performance as a guest orchestra in Ireland in 1997 as follows: “The Budapest Festival Orchestra is bursting with talent and devotion. The musicians only want to play, it does not matter if the audience is made up of people wearing evening dresses and buying tickets for £30, or a group of children who listen to the message of the music with wide open eyes...”
However, there were some problems, despite the recognitions. Personal conflicts arose within the orchestra, and Zoltán Kocsis left the ensemble. After things calmed down, the members of the BFO strived to make each and every concert a unique and special event. The orchestra received its first Gramophone Award for the 1998 recording of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. The success story continued with a renewed orchestral model based on several pillars by the turn of the millennium. Because of its work over the following decade, the BFO was deemed by classical music magazine Gramophone to be one of the ten best orchestras in the world in 2008. Studies of the orchestra are published, and many follow their everyday work: how the musicians put their heart and soul into their creative way of playing music. This year their recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and critics have written about the “distinctive play of Iván Fischer and the 30-year-old Festival Orchestra” after their recent tour in the UK.
“The orchestra owes its success to its virtuosity and the profoundness of its music-making. These were the words of Louwrens Langevoort, intendant of the Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra, when he congratulated the BFO on its 30th anniversary. The jubilee will be celebrated on 26 December at the Budapest Congress & World Trade Centre with a special “request concert” introduced by the orchestra, where the programme will be finalised according to audience votes. Those attending the concert will be able to convince themselves of Iván Fischer’s mission, who said in a German newspaper interview that: “the only way to make people happy with our music is by us loving the music we play, and sharing this joy with the audience.”
Éva Nádai: twenty-eight unforgettable years
“Miracle. The first time I played music together with Iván Fischer may be described with this one word only” – explains violinist Éva Nádai, one of the founders of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “Mozart was in every single sound of Don Giovanni he conducted, and after the performance at the Erkel Theatre I felt I wanted to continue my life as a musician by his side. At last a conductor who broke through the wall of indifference and routine, and fought to express everything the musician feels in music. So it was natural for me to attend the rehearsal at the Italian Cultural Institute. Everybody was extremely enthusiastic in preparing for the Festival Orchestra’s debut in 1983. We did not care about the criticism: we wanted to show, perhaps even out of obstinacy, that music can also be played in some other way. We were like a big family, where all the members worked towards a common goal with enormous enthusiasm. Iván always asked us not to play merely what is written in the sheet, and he could infect everybody with his faith and interest. He also conveyed that each member is needed just as much as the concertmaster, irrespective of where they are seated. A spirit of democracy reigned in the beginning, everyone was allowed to express their opinion, which was usually heard. Although the jealousy of the profession could always be sensed, and the members of the orchestra were criticised many times, nothing would make us forgo the small number of concerts the Festival Orchestra held in a year. Later – despite the uncertain situation – I chose this orchestra instead of the Opera House, and the twenty-eight unforgettable years I spent here were worth everything. The immense enthusiasm of the initial period changed over time, the ensemble, which played increasingly smoothly together, gradually became an orchestra regularly touring and performing in concerts. Many young musicians joined the orchestra, we focused on them separately, some of us even becoming mentors for them, sharing our experiences. In 1992, when the orchestra finally had its regular members, a new era began. I cannot list all the memorable concerts, since each was an unforgettable experience because of something else. I even cried once, during the London performance of Duke Bluebeard's Castle with Ildikó Komlósi and László Polgár. That evening the orchestra did some miraculous things; it was a special experience to play music as a member of the orchestra, and a great pleasure to perform in front of a sympathetic audience with glittering eyes, who have followed the history of the orchestra from the very first concert.
Emese Gulyás: playing music as a soloist
Auditions are always very stressful; there was nevertheless a surprisingly pleasant atmosphere in the Festival Orchestra’s rehearsal hall when Emese Gulyás first entered it six years ago to showcase her talent. She was immediately caught by the mood of the premises in Selmeci utca, and felt happy that her musician colleagues applauded her performance since she had already dreamed of playing in the Festival Orchestra when a student at the Music Academy. The violinist, who is today a member of the orchestra, was asked to perform six months later, and has since been performing regularly in concerts with the orchestra. Nonetheless, she still remembers how she felt her heart pounding when she rehearsed with the orchestra for the first time. In the beginning she used to be so tired due to the intense practising and deep concentration that she had to sleep after the rehearsals... She cannot forget the first tour either: the symphonies performed at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam are close to her heart even today. She fondly recalls how helpful her fellow musicians were, how quickly she was accepted and given advice with regard to the pieces and Iván Fischer’s expectations. Also, she will always remember every moment of the evening in Carnegie Hall and the tour in China.
Emese Gulyás loves being part of the creative process as a member of the orchestra, playing music as a soloist and being able to express her own thoughts with each sound. She is pleased that she can put her best foot forward, and play completely relaxed among musicians who inspire each other. Where freshness and inspiration are always present, and no two concerts are ever identical. Where each concert is a real festive occasion, and the musicians have maintained their enthusiasm – regardless of the number of years they have spent as members of the orchestra – still playing with glittering eyes.
Zsolt Fejérvári: from the conservatory to a concert played at sight
Zsolt Fejérvári, who is today the principal double bass of the Festival Orchestra, has been playing music with the BFO for twenty-five years. He first played with the ensemble as a student at the Music Academy, and has been part of many unforgettable tours and concerts over the years.
Gramofon: How did you become member of the Festival Orchestra?
Zsolt Fejérvári: When I was a first-year student at the Music Academy in 1988, Zsolt Tibay, then principal double bass of the Festival Orchestra, suddenly appeared at one of my double bass lessons, and listened to it without a word. The following day he called me up and said they were counting on me in the forthcoming period of the orchestra; of course, I was happy as a lark... Back then, members of the Festival Orchestra only came together a couple of times a year to give celebratory concerts and make recordings. During the following years, sitting behind Zsolt in the double bass section was like attending a real conservatory; I learnt a lot about leading a section of the orchestra as well as how a symphony orchestra plays.
G.: You have known the orchestra for twenty-five years. What was the most memorable tour or concert over this time?
Zs. F.: It is very difficult to pick out some of the innumerable world-class soloists and memorable concerts. I can recall my first tour with the orchestra, Bartók’s impressive Piano Concerto No. 3 conducted by Zoltán Kocsis at the Musikverein in Vienna. Images from András Schiff’s Bach-Bartók series come to mind, when the audience queued in their droves at the Music Academy. The Mozart opera series is also unforgettable: I think the orchestra renders Mozart’s orchestral works completely differently since we performed Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. I remember the duet of John Tomlinson and Petra Lang at the Barbican in London. Many of us cried on stage during Wotan’s farewell in the final movement of The Valkyrie...
G.: You are not only principal double bass, but have also played in BFO concerts as a soloist. How do you see the orchestra from this perspective?
Zs. F.: It is always a valuable experience to perform a concerto, especially if you do not play a typical solo instrument, such as the double bass. I have always found it moving that my colleagues accompanied me with great care, caution, empathy and love, never suppressing my relatively more nasal and restrained instrument.
G.: You have tested your knowledge in many other orchestras as well. What makes the BFO different? Is there a task the principal double bass of the Festival Orchestra typically has to perform?
Zs. F.: The majority of Western orchestras I am familiar with rarely or never have section rehearsals. One of the secrets of the Festival Orchestra’s success must be that we start the first day of our weekly rehearsal with separate rehearsals for the string/wind instruments, then the strings “retire” to their section rehearsal. Thus we can work on the intonation, the ways we play together and the articulation very effectively. The fact that even members of our section usually recommend finger positions, bowing techniques and musical solutions improves the atmosphere during work. These rehearsals are very creative and experimental.
G.: Seeing it from the inside, how has the orchestra changed over the last twenty-five years?
Zs. F.: I got to know the vast majority of the orchestra members back at the Music Academy. I can easily say that we have grown up and learnt the profession together. Today it makes me smile, but during the first years there were persons in charge of copying audio cassettes: all the pieces included in the programme were new to “infants”, we learnt the basic repertoire together. The orchestra has made enormous progress over the last two decades: our concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where 6-7 thousand people witnessed a formidable undertaking a couple of years ago is a good example. After we played Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 as part of the evening concert in front of a crowded audience, we wiped the powdered rosin off our instruments, and the public could choose from a list of hundreds of music pieces what to listen to in the second concert. The “concert played at sight” was an enormous success: some critics of the London press even reported that our two concerts that evening were the most prestigious events of the Proms Festival. By the way, it is well known that London orchestras rehearse just a few times before the concert; organising a concert where we play at sight was very much like selling tons of sand in a desert...