Budapest Festival Orchestra
Uncategorized October 26, 2016

“Only the truly brave dare to take the stage”

How one of the hottest orchestras in the world met the children of Cserdi? The Budapest Festival Orchestra went to Cserdi, a predominantly Gypsy village in Baranya county, to play Schubert and Vivaldi. What happened was a miracle. The colleague of, Judit Kárpáti, was there to tell the story.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is considered one of the ten best orchestras in the world, and the New York Times once even went so far as to call them the very best. They regularly perform at the most important concert halls, from Carnegie Hall to the Musikverein. Bringing the beauty of classical music to the audience is something that can, in itself, make the world more liveable. But aside from catering for more mainstream adult audiences, the orchestra’s most vital mission is to appeal to children and those who otherwise would never, or only indirectly, get to experience classical music.

A birthday without a cake

“After the frenzied audience of several thousands at the Royal Albert Hall, it was rather a shock to be playing here at home for a group of disadvantaged kids. It was shocking and moving, but it gives you just the same rush as playing at the pinnacle of the world. We listened to the stories of a little girl who couldn’t blow the flute like a birthday candle because she’d never had a birthday cake; a young teenager who didn’t want to eat the Wiener schnitzel because they didn’t have hot meals at home; or a little boy who had no idea about bedtime stories as the family doesn’t even have books. We cannot solve the problems of the ‘have nots’ and the ‘never have hads’, but we strive to do everything we can for them by our own means,” says Orsolya Erdődy, deputy executive director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

Every year, the orchestra endeavours to develop new concert forms and educational programmes for the children, such as Choose Your Instrument, which they take around schools, or the now-classic Cocoa Concerts and their off-shoot, the Autism-friendly Cocoa Concerts. The Dancing on the Square project, which started in 2015, predominantly aims to bring together disadvantaged young people and children from diverse social backgrounds to dance on Heroes’ Square before thousands of people, accompanied by a live performance of the Festival Orchestra.

The latest: Music Castle

Members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra are encouraged to come up with programmes and help see them through to reality. This is what led one of the orchestra’s violinists, Erika Illési, to dream up Music Castle. A dozen journalists were invited along, and that’s how I ended up in Cserdi.

The name of the village may be familiar; with the support of the local population, László Bogdán, the ethnic-Roma mayor, has brought a renewed sense of prosperity. He has led the village to become a model to others, one where there is no unemployment and where conflicts between Roma and non-Roma residents are resolved. As he puts it, in Cserdi “there is no begging, there is a determination to act”.

The first thing you notice on arriving in the village is a section of rail and a memorial plaque. The restored and re-imagined Holocaust memorial was created in memory of the deported Roma. But I have no time to ponder on this as the kids are already gathering on the other side of the street. In the building where the performance will take place, one of the rooms has been kitted out with beads, empty water bottles and egg boxes, for making the instruments. By the time they all sit down on the mats that cover the floor, everyone has their own tambourine, improvised-guitar or paper trumpet that they’ve made themselves. When László Bogdán turns up the room is full of noise, a great cacophony with frenzied blowing of trumpets, but he calms the kids down with just a couple of words. It is obvious that they know him and see him often, but also that they take heed of what he says.

Drumming jesters

Then finally it’s time for the concert and an exploration of the musical instruments, all embedded in a tale. The plot of Music Castle features the conductor playing the king, members of the orchestra as the valiant soldiers and the people of the castle serving the empire. While the king and his servants are off visiting the neighbouring Austrian Emperor, the princess stays at home with the jester and some rather strange things happen… The story is told through musical pieces that are especially easy to understand and appealing to children, such as Schubert’s Soldier's March or Vivaldi’s Spring. The storyteller is Erika Illési herself, who tells the children that everything in the world is music and that it’s up to them whether they will be able to hear the sound of the wind or understand the language of dogs and birds.

The deputy executive director called playing music for disadvantaged children shocking and moving, but also emphasised the rush it gives; something I got to experience first-hand at the moment in the concert when some empty paint cans and half a dozen drumsticks appear. Ed Arganziano’s piece for drums, entitled Stickin' Garbage, works everybody up into a state of ecstasy.

The children, who have so far listened to the music in awe, suddenly jump up and hurry over to the makeshift drums. All the heads, legs and hands follow the beat and the whole room is filled with a singularity of rhythm and joy.

We grin widely and clap our hands, and the musicians too seem to be enjoying the whole thing tremendously.

Memories to take home

At one point while making music together, Erika encourages the kids to move around and also gives them the chance to perform. Everybody is shouting the name of one of the bigger boys, urging him to take the stage. But he’s reluctant and finally Bendzsi, a little boy of about six, raises his hand - although when he goes up to the musicians with Erika, he seems to be rather regretting the whole thing. Yet despite his sheepishness he still wants to work with Erika. When the violin starts up he has to speak in the ‘language’ of animals, dogs in this case, which means he has to bark. While taking part in the performance alongside Erika, he glances out at the others: What might they be thinking? Won’t they laugh at him in the end? When the piece comes to a close, Erika is holding Bendzsi’s hand; they bow together with the orchestra, and Bendzsi returns to his place.

“Thank you very much for helping the orchestra, you’ve done a great job. Now you all know that everybody can understand the language of animals, but only the truly brave dare to take the stage. Don’t they, Bendzsi?” she says, jovially but with great purpose.

I can only see the back of the little boy’s neck, but his posture says it all: he has already decided that he’s rather proud of his performance. As I watch the angelic little boy, I am pretty sure the memory of that sentence, and the whole afternoon, will stay with him forever.

Since June 2015 the Budapest Festival Orchestra has presented seven free Music Castle events. In those one and a half years 1,200 children, predominantly from underprivileged backgrounds, have got to hear to it in six different villages over five counties. While time flew during the concert, the experience will stay with us for a long time…

The original, Hungarian article can be reached through