Budapest Festival Orchestra
Press reviews January 20, 2015

Ivan Fischer leads Budapest Festival Orchestra where NSO couldn’t go

The Hungarian conductor Ivan Fischer has the slightly nerdy enthusiasm of a very bright child: involved with his ideas, always up for a game. He turns 64 this month, but seems younger. He loves number games, memory challenges, mental chess. When he was principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra — a post he held for two years, until 2010 — he sometimes read the score of one piece on the podium while conducting the musicians in another.

“He struck me as somebody who’s always operating on a different plane in a certain way,” says Nick Stovall, the NSO’s principal oboeist. “Totally in the moment, but thinking about something else.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

In Washington, Fischer is the maestro who got away. He came within a hair of becoming the NSO’s music director, but he was unwilling to commit to the limitations of an American orchestra.

“I don’t like the whole system, the way American symphonies are organized,” he said last week, speaking by Skype from Berlin, where he and his family (he has two young sons) are now largely based. He has made no secret of his views, tellinginterviewers that orchestras have to change or risk dying out.

The rest of the world, increasingly, is hailing him as a visionary. A conductor who does not care about titles or prestige, who does not have a Web site or even a manager, he devotes himself mainly to the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded 32 years ago, and to his new post as head of the Konzerthaus orchestra, one of the less-known orchestras in the former East Berlin. With these ensembles, he has been introducing all kinds of innovations — mixing up the players’ seating order, placing the audience onstage among the musicians, having the musicians break into song or even dance — resulting in performances that people describe as thrilling.

“You get a sense in Budapest of somebody like the Pied Piper of Hamelin,” says Katy Clark, the executive director of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York and a self-described Fischer fan. “People just follow him.”

Washington Performing Arts is bringing the Budapest Festival Orchestra to Strathmore on Friday night. The program does not exactly look radical. Fischer specializes in the canonical 19th-century and classical, Central European repertoire; the Strathmore concert includes Mozart’s fifth violin concerto and the incidental music to Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But Fischer is not radical in the shake-up-the-audience-with-new-music sense of the term. He is radical in the why-do-more-people-not-experiment-more sense of the term. It’s not avant-garde radicalism, but radical enjoyment.

Those august ensembles are far more conventional than the ones Fischer calls his musical family. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is technically a freelance group, in which each player is contracted for only two years — although in practice, there is a high rate of continuity. As for the Konzert­haus, he took it over in 2012 after a delegation of its musicians approached him to asked if he would lead them, even though he had never conducted them before. In addition to conducting duties, his Konzerthaus contract specifies that he stage one opera a year, organize three festivals and compose at least one piece of music himself.

In Washington, Fischer led some fine performances — his Mahler “Resurection” Symphony remains powerful in memory — but you could argue that aud­iences and musicians here only got a small taste of what he has to offer. “My main job was to create a bridge between two music directors,” he says now. “I don’t think I managed to achieve anything near the level of excitement I usually get with Budapest and now Berlin, but this was simply because the period was too short.”

Some NSO players adored Fischer. Some found his approach dry and academic. “Ivan has an incredibly creative mind,” says Sylvia Alimena, a conductor and former horn player with the orchestra. But she adds, “While his ideas were compelling, his stick technique was not.”

 “He seemed to sour on the orchestra rather quickly after his arrival,” said the cellist Steven Honigberg, “wanting to make sweeping changes in the winds and brass that management would not allow.”

But, “I think there was a real rapport,” says Stovall, one of two hires during Fischer’s tenure. “He had a real personal connection with a lot of people.”

It’s no secret that Fischer is down on American orchestras — not as ensembles, but as institutions. “Just to be a musical director of a normal American orchestra is something that doesn’t interest me at all any more,” he says. “The administration regards the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] as a bible, and the CBA is an outdated old-fashioned document negotiated between a union and some type of management years and years and years ago. It puts in concrete an old-fashioned orchestra system which is not able to reform itself because of this document. It should be reformed and rethought.”

Yet Fischer’s approach, with its emphasis on different forms of outreach, different kinds of performance, is very much in line with the trends in the American orchestra world today (witness the NSO’s recent performance in a club as part of “NSO in Your Neighborhood”). In a sense, what he epitomizes is a kind of conventional radicalism — beliefs about the field that find resonance even in its upper echelons.

“In a way we are in a “Darwinian time” for our ensembles,” the Kennedy Center’s president, Deborah Rutter, said last week in an e-mailed statement. “Orchestras everywhere need to assess their repertoire, reach, audience, format, and role as creative and re-creative artistic ensembles. . . .We are at a critical tipping point and those orchestras willing and able to be flexible and responsive while remaining true to standards of excellence will be the most likely to thrive.”

Some music lovers don’t like the sound of this kind of change. For them, Fischer‘s Mendelssohn should be a tonic: reform not with a bang, but a smile.