There are not too many workplaces where people are happy to stay for 20 or even 30 years. There are even fewer types of work that make you euphoric every night. But this is just the environment that the Budapest Festival Orchestra established by Iván Fischer provides its musicians. We decided to unravel this allure during the orchestra’s Hamburg tour. Report by Hanna Csatlós, hvg.hu.
The harmony between the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) founded in 1983 and conductor Iván Fischer might be compared to the way the human organism is linked to the central nervous system. Nearly a hundred musicians follow the conductor’s instructions within a split second, while he in turn can react adequately to the slightest signal or change of mood in the orchestra. You don’t need to understand classical music to experience at BFO concerts how everybody on the stage breathes together with Iván Fischer and his baton.
This organic unity was broken when the Festival Orchestra went on tour with a Bartók programme. One day before the first performance, it turned out that due to a sudden health issue, Iván Fischer would not be able to conduct the next concerts. This time, Fischer, who, according to the musicians, had never before cancelled any of his appearances, could not join the orchestra, so the BFO left for the first place of its tour, the Elbphilharmonie of Hamburg with a replacement conductor, the 36-year-old Gábor Káli.
The circumstances were not at all ideal for this unexpected turn. Káli had never worked with the BFO and now had only one day to get acquainted with the orchestra. And the musicians had never played in the Hamburg concert hall (inaugurated in 2017), so they had no idea about the – almost perfect – acoustics of the hall. In addition, they had two full-house concerts of Béla Bartók’s works ahead of them.
The absence of Iván Fischer could be compared to a piece missing from the middle of a puzzle. Although that small part is missing, the puzzle pieces around it show its exact shape and the gap only makes the contour of the missing piece even sharper. Therefore, the experience, routine and artistic quality of the orchestra were even more conspicuous when they solved this “crisis” off the cuff.
For this, however, they also needed a replacement conductor like Munich-based Gábor Káli, who sometimes admittedly derives energy from rock music. Káli, who had worked in Aachen and then in Nuremberg and won the Hong Kong International Conducting Competition, as well as the conducting competition of the Salzburg Festival in 2018, “was able handle the great pressure, knew the pieces extremely well, conducted with great confidence and could communicate to us his own musical ideas”, explained Emese Gulyás, a violinist in the orchestra.
The young conductor had a difficult task, as the Budapest Festival Orchestra would immediately have “devoured” the newcomer if he had not seemed genuine. Double bassist Zsolt Fejérvári believes that it takes an experienced orchestra about four minutes to pigeonhole a weaker conductor and it is rather difficult to get out of that pigeonhole. “Gábor, however, could really hold his ground. Other people might have flopped in his situation.”
“We’ll have the atmosphere of a football match with everybody cheering”
A few years ago, Gramophone, the world's leading classical music magazine, selected the Budapest Festival Orchestra as one of the world’s ten best symphony orchestras. Iván Fischer “is considered a world star, who is often invited to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. He can choose from the invitations and may even decide to say no to the Berlin Konzerthaus Orchestra (Fischer was the music director of the Berlin Konzerthaus until 2018 - editorial note), where he has remained an honorary conductor”, says Zsolt Fejérvári.
The musician thinks it was astonishing how on the first night in Hamburg the orchestra could execute whatever Gábor Káli instructed them to, though they had no time to get used to the movements of the unfamiliar hands. “It is true that, thanks to Iván, we are aware that anything might happen at any time, so we never turn on the autopilot; Iván always performs the same programme in a slightly different way, and has some surprise for us.
In Hungary, almost all of the BFO’s concerts end with a rapturous applause, while in America, the audience admire Fischer’s orchestra with an ovation worthy of stadiums; Emese Gulyás says that in their oversees concerts typically “when the last notes ring out, the audience spring to their feet and the atmosphere is that of a football match with everybody joining the loud ovation.” Zsolt Fejérvári can remember concerts where they could see that their music moved some people in the audience to tears.
Those are occasions when extremely strong energies are moved. Sometimes you think that classical music is just those penguins appearing on stage and playing something. But it is so much more; we can have an amazing effect on people and this is a very good feeling.
What makes it tick?
There is a practical and also a more mysterious explanation to the striking effect of the concerts. When performed by the BFO, even the most difficult pieces - on a difficulty scale of 1 to 10, most of Bartók’s works are placed at 8 - are played impeccably and with ease, and the orchestra likes taking risks with the greatest challenges. Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps, an emblematic classical music piece of the 20th century, is, for example, a composition with one of the most difficult rhythmic patterns and most complicated musical textures ever written - Fejérvári thinks it should be rated as 15 on a scale of 1 to 10 -, and yet, at the beginning of this year, it became the pride of the BFO’s repertoire. It is a piece “like the Eiffel Tower constructed from matchsticks: one slip or one matchstick removed and the whole thing will collapse.”
Another important thing is that the orchestra is rather resistant to stress and, as Fejérvári believes the BFO “always plays best at matches when the stakes are high”. “Last time I had this experience at the Berlin Konzerthaus. We went to the city where the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, generally considered the best in the world, is seated and gave a concert where at the end, the audience was standing up and cheering wildly. It’s as if we Hungarians went to the home of Real Madrid and played football there.”
Gábor Káli thinks that the key to the BFO’s secret is - and here is where the mystery comes into the picture - that “the musicians have the highest level of attention and affection when playing together. However, what happens between me and the orchestra during the performance while we don’t even talk is even more important. There is an almost indescribable process between us, a very intense feeling together, and this is the most essential thing. I am sending out something for which they have the antennae for and react to, and this is how the sound is born. They are so sensitive musicians that this deep empathy could be created even on the first occasion.”
Passport to the bows!
Looking at it pragmatically and from an employees’ point of view, another positive of the BFO is that it is a very stable workplace; not many have left the ensemble since it became an independent and permanent orchestra in 1992. Although Emese Gulyás is one of the youngest members, she has been in the orchestra already for 11 years. She thinks the BFO is like paradise. “It’ rather difficult to get in, but one you’re there, you will stay there. Being officially accepted in the BFO family carries immense prestige and will be one of the highlights of your life.”
Zsolt Fejérvári has been the orchestra’s member for 31 years. He left twice to work abroad but he left his heart there both times and returned. “As far as I know, other than those who have retired, no-one has left since 2003. No-one has left the orchestra walking away and going somewhere else or no-one has been sacked”, he says.
Not only are the BFO’s musicians long-standing members, but the technical manager and problem-solving person of the orchestra, Róbert Zentai has also been with them since 1994. He also plays a vital role in their success, and practically no concert could be performed without him. He is involved in the planning stage of the tours years in advance, since each trip has countless logistical issues which also affect their feasibility. It is his duty, for example, to organise the transport by land, water or air of instruments that are often worth several million forints.
Sometimes there are rather tricky problems to be solved. He has used his magic to turn a truck for transporting instruments into a backstage or dressing room, and in Vicenza, he “provided the stage scenery and equipment with additional flame retardant treatment”. The 500-year-old Italian Renaissance theatre protected its own stage scenery to such an extent that its staff tested the flame resistance of the orchestra’s props with a lighter.
It is also thanks to his efforts that now even the bows have a passport to enter the United States, as they too are very strictly checked at the border. “They may contain materials - mother of pearl, snake skin, ebony - whose bringing into the country might even be classified as smuggling”, Zentai explains. “The bows must not contain ivory from elephants shot after 1974, so we must declare, involving a judicial expert, that our bows comply with the requirements. On the first occasion, in spite of all that there was still a suspicion that our bows contained ivory, so a penalty was imposed on us and we had to pay 500 dollars. Moreover, seven of our bows were taken. Since then, we have tried to be very careful.”
He should be good at HR and PR
“What sort of a person is Iván besides being a genius? He has a very clear vision of what he wants and an extremely accurate sense of proportions. He is like a sculptor; he is able to create the music. The stone is there before him, but, instead of seeing the stone, he can see the marble masterpiece in it, which he now only has to shape”, says Emese Gulyás.
Zsolt Fejérvári finds it daunting how many things a great conductor must be good at: “He should be an outstanding music historian, speak four or five languages, be highly erudite because pieces do not just hang in the air but are imbedded in a cultural context. And then a conductor needs excellent ears and a good dramatic sense, a good sense of humour, and he must also be a fantastic psychologist and know how a community works. He should be a great leader, an HR genius and also good at PR, have a wonderful sense of finances and a convincing power worthy of the master of a Ponzi scheme. He should play at least two or three instruments - keyboard is a must -, read orchestral scores extremely well, be dauntingly intelligent and have a fantastic memory - I myself can hardly understand how a human brain can contain Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. A conductor also needs to have “good hands” so that his movements can be understood, as well as a good sense of time. And taste is absolutely indispensable.”
There is something else beyond the conductor why playing in a symphony orchestra is generally such a great thing. Euphoria. “It is by no means work when I’m on stage, in fact that is when I can be really myself” says Emese Gulyás. “We often feel the flow during the concerts and each night are inundated with so many positive experiences while we may also release so much energy in ourselves that I don’t think is possible in too many other professions. Some people work from 8 to 4 and then need to do something else to be able to be themselves.” As she puts it: If you enter the world of these pieces, then your body will simply be unable to bear their depths.