Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews August 14, 2017

Iván Fischer: the rebel conductor rescuing Mozart’s ‘sex addict’ from Hell

As he returns to the Edinburgh Festival, radical maestro Iván Fischer defends lustful Don Giovanni. A conversation with Iván Fischer. Article by Anna Picard, The Times.

On a dark leather couch in a stygian corner of a swish hotel lobby in London the Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer is taking his morning coffee, black, no sugar. “There is advice I give to musicians and young conductors,” he says, and pauses for effect. “You may kill.” He pauses again. “You may flirt.” Another pause. “You may hate.” Pause. “You may be aggressive. You may be sentimental.” He pauses once more and smiles slightly. “In music you are allowed to do all those things which we try to control in ourselves.”

Between the rolled Rs and the piquant vowels, Fischer’s quiet, emphatic delivery and the dim lighting, this feels more like a nightcap conversation. On the fifth stop of a five-country tour of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Fischer admits that he dislikes touring and prefers rehearsals to performances. “The searching for the piece, in the refining stage — that motivates me the most,” he says. “A performer likes to repeat, and I realised at a certain point that I’m probably more an innovator, that maybe I had the wrong profession. I’m not a typical conductor, but it’s all right. Maybe I’m an unusual type of conductor.”

Sounds that “sometimes hurt”, along with sounds that “disturb or elevate”, are Fischer’s business, be they the sounds of Don Giovanni, which he brings to the Edinburgh International Festival in a production of his own devising, or the sounds of Mahler’s Third Symphony, the latest in a sequence of recordings for Channel Classics that he insists will not be a complete cycle “because I don’t do the Eighth. I don’t understand the proportions of it. There are so many other interesting things to do, so why this conventional thing to have a cycle? That’s not enough reason to conduct the Eighth Symphony.”

At 66, Fischer divides his time between the Konzerthausorchester Berlin and the Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO). He says that he will not take another permanent post when his contract in Berlin ends next year. As a guest conductor, he has enjoyed long relationships with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic. So, just the great orchestras? “Well, you see, what is a great orchestra? One orchestra has great individuals. Another orchestra has a great discipline. They’re different criteria. I think no orchestra is as innovative and as involved as a team as the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This is unique.”

Fischer was born into a culture that was almost obliterated in the war. One grandparent was killed in Buchenwald, another in Auschwitz. His father and mother survived in hiding in Budapest. As a student in Vienna, studying cello, piano and conducting, he says that he had already begun to pull away from “this Karajan-like taste in which everything had to be rounded off and beautiful”. In 1976 he won the Rupert Foundation conducting prize and spent several unhappy years negotiating early success. A colleague who worked with him at Kent Opera in the 1980s remembers him as “Charming, sexy and chaotic”. Is this fair? “Mmm. What seemed chaotic twenty, thirty years ago, was probably dissatisfaction. I wasn’t satisfied with the way we presented music but I didn’t quite know how to solve the problem. Now I know.”

In 1983 Fischer founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a uniquely versatile ensemble that plays repertoire from Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner and Mahler to central and east European folk music with a distinctive, tangy timbre. “It comes from intuition and freedom of rhythm. We encourage people to really play creatively, not to follow instructions and be obedient.” The cultural heritage is complex. “It’s the Hapsburg empire. There is Viennese influence, Gypsy influence, Russian influence, Balkan rhythms, and that somehow creates an incredible wealth of music.”

That diversity is something that Fischer believes has been airbrushed from the Vienna Philharmonic’s hallowed New Year’s Concert. “I couldn’t imagine anything more fake,” he says. “People come into this golden concert hall and think that what they hear is the old Viennese style? The Hapsburg empire was a much more colourful and controversial and fascinating empire. It was full of Gypsies, Serbs, Romanians, Hungarians, Jews and Czechs, especially in Johann Strauss’s time. And now Vienna is presented in this chocolate box.

“I was always playing with the idea of creating an alternative New Year’s Concert, because in Vienna, before the First World War, when young Hitler was living there, there was huge tension between the Germans and the Czechs and the Jews. Mahler was in the middle of this, exactly in the middle of it: being Jewish; trying to behave not Jewish.” Does he hear political tension in Mahler’s music? “Completely. I can hear it completely. This was Vienna. This ‘prettiness’ of Johann Strauss? It was a little more than that. This tension created the First World War, which created the Second World War, and all the tensions we experience since then.”

Fischer has been outspoken in his criticism of the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist policies and rhetoric. Last year, seemingly in retaliation, Budapest city council cut the BFO’s annual grant by €640,000. “I think that what we have in this period is a backlash. I’m not very worried about it. I think Europe will eventually integrate.”
Despite the cuts, the BFO continues with its outreach work, creating purely classical midnight concerts for young adults and events that autistic children and their non-autistic siblings can enjoy together, which includes playing in synagogues across the country. “In one village the synagogue had been turned into a table tennis club. In another it was a ruin opened for the first time for the concert.”

His ideas about how to present music have continued to evolve. When he performs Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony with the BFO he places a sapling tree centre stage and seats his woodwind principals in among the strings. This year, in New York, he positioned his chorus members in the stalls, flashmob-style, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. “It’s the first time I felt that the symphony worked, that the audience felt, ‘He’s singing, she’s singing, it’s us.’ ”

The Edinburgh Don Giovanni is an extension of a modern-dress staging Fischer developed in 2010. “I did this physical arrangement of 16 actors, to create the stage with their bodies, because I wanted to see the world with the eyes of Don Giovanni, with this strong sexual urge and never satisfied thirst.” Is this sex addiction? “It is. I think we would send him to a shrink nowadays, but in the 18th century he was sent to Hell. Who punishes him? People full of biases and expectations. Sure, he’s a womaniser, he’s a killer, but he accepts himself and he doesn’t want to conform to the norm.”
Fischer is aware that conducting and directing may seem like egomania. “The director thinks that he has to bring the opera closer to today’s audiences. The conductor thinks that he’s a high priest who has to respect the score. These are polarised mentalities. The recent tendency, which is acoustically repetitive, visually innovative, is not the only way. I’m searching for something more authentic.”

To this end he is founding a festival in Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, built by Andrea Palladio in 1585, shortly before the birth of opera. Does this mean a diet of Peri and Monteverdi? “No. Not at all. The opposite. What interests me is to play everything there, even contemporary opera.”

Fischer composes operas too and since 2001 has been writing a book that is part theory, part memoir. “What happened. How it developed. Certain mistakes. For me, the 33 years with the BFO have been a huge success. I don’t mean in terms of reputation. I wanted to reform the phenomenon of the symphony orchestra, how it serves a community, and actually I think it worked.”

Will he conduct until he drops? “No, no! I’m very happy composing. I’m very happy directing. I’m happy thinking about the world and the future of things. There is a long list of things I want to do. But I don’t think for me the most important thing is to wave a baton.”

You can read the original article here.