Budapest Festival Orchestra
Interviews December 18, 2013


In Hungary, people focus too much on their Hungarian identity, even though your relationship to a nation is a private affair. We still have much to learn from civil courage and democracy, and the revival of the Horthy cult is shameful, but the tide will turn. How did the Budapest Festival Orchestra become world-class? What makes somebody a good conductor, and what happens when they go backstage after a soul-stirring performance? We talked with Iván Fischer, music director and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra’s The Marriage of Figaro performance ranked first on the New York Magazine’s list of the ten best classical music events in New York this year. The Orchestra celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2013. We accompanied them on their latest tour in Europe, and talked with their conductor Iván Fischer. We are flying from Amsterdam to Munich at the moment. You live partly in Budapest and partly in Berlin, but you have your own Dutch world as well. You are a real cosmopolitan – how can you still preserve your Hungarian identity?

Iván Fischer: For some time now I have been thinking that the extent to which people in Hungary deal with their Hungarian identity is wrong. If you are a Portuguese, for instance, then it is nobody’s business to what extent you identify yourself with the Portuguese, I think. In Hungary there is a growing hysteria about this: we measure to what extent people identify themselves with being Hungarian using a thermometer. The ties to children, husbands, wives, dwellings, home villages, native countries or even an old piece of clothing are personal matters, which are nobody’s business. So nationality is a private affair, just like sexual orientation for example.

I. F.: Yes, I think so. Prying into other people’s relationships to their nation or country is probing into their private life. In earlier centuries, the matter of religion was handled with similar aggression. Spinoza, for example, was almost burnt at the stake because he was not thought to be religious enough. And today, people have to prove their feelings about nationality. You said earlier that Europe is a beautiful concept, where bridges between countries have to be found. Where is Hungary in this system? Does Hungarian culture still need the Marshall aid?

I. F.: It would be good if Europe was a real family, where people help each other and have common ground. This should enable rich countries not to think of helping poor countries as a huge sacrifice. Rich countries do a lot, but we’re not there yet. It is still not enough.

Until there are Eurobonds, there will be no sense of community. This would be the real objective. This could be achieved if we come to love each other and each other’s culture. We should not only sense our culture as our own, but we Hungarians, for example, should also perceive Czech culture to be a common European value. According to one of the Festival Orchestra members, one of your virtues is that you are present in the international arena not as a Hungaricum playing Hungarian music only, but playing anything.

I. F.: Competitiveness is very important. You can be present in the international supermarket as a Hungaricum with national colouring on salamis, sausages and wines. But there is competitiveness at a higher level, where you no longer need these ribbons, and customers take something from the shelf because it is nice. This is what we want to achieve, and that is why we would like to hold our own even at international level. You express your opinions about public issues on a regular basis, but you also keep emphasising that you do not deal with day-to-day politics. How do you choose the issues you speak up for?

I. F.: I believe that Hungary still has much to learn from civil courage and democracy. Many people let things happen, they endure events and are essentially passive. In contrast to this, very few people say that this is our country, it is me and my fellows who decide how things should happen here. Yet that is democracy. Activity is democracy, and every politically exposed person should set an example and be active. This is our affair, our country, let’s take charge for ourselves. Does this activity change the phenomena you observe in Hungary, such as the burgeoning cult of Horthy, paranoia or nationalism?

I. F.: These processes will change. The cult of Horthy is shameful. Terrible. In Europe it is not really acceptable that there is a little country where statues of Hitler’s ally are being erected. Paranoia is a mistake, nobody is hurting us. We travel a lot with the orchestra, and I find that Hungarians are particularly welcomed everywhere in the world. People’s eyes often glint because they remember 1956 and the opening of the borders in 1989, they love the taste of paprika and Lake Balaton. People have far more good experiences with Hungarians than bad ones.

The kind of fundamentalist nationalism that cocoons and closets itself, creating pictures of enemies, does the greatest harm to the country. It is a completely wrong perception of reality. It is obvious what would do Hungary good. This is a small country, there are no raw materials and our language is very difficult to learn, therefore it would help if we established international relations, were on good terms with our neighbours, learned languages at school, and took part in the life of the European family. What can an internationally recognised orchestra, similar to the Festival Orchestra, add to this European thinking together and building?

I. F.: A lot. Classic radio channels in America continuously broadcast our recordings. Every minute several hundreds of thousands of people hear the word Budapest in America, only because the recordings of the Budapest Festival Orchestra are played.

The effect of music is stronger than anything else. If a Dutch, German or French listener sits in the concert hall, watches this Hungarian orchestra’s performance for one or one and a half hours, experiences intense emotions, likes the music they listen to, they will probably go home with much greater sympathy towards Hungarians than prior to the concert. Launching the Festival Orchestra in Budapest was a cultural scandal 30 years ago, and you had to withstand strong resistance.

I. F.: Yes, but that’s not the point. There were jealousies and initial difficulties, but that’s normal. If somebody does something new, there will always be hostile opinions and jealousies, but this didn’t cause any considerable change in the plan. Those who wanted to establish a newspaper or a private hospital would experience the same today. How did the orchestra become world-class? You consider the reform structure as the secret to your success. What does this mean exactly?

I. F.: I imagined thirty years ago that the real purpose of this orchestra would be to reform the way a symphony orchestra works. I had a lot of problems with conventional orchestras, which is not a Hungarian issue, but an international one. I felt that orchestras are tired, afraid, jaded, forced to play cut and dried pieces, their structure is rigid and unable to be improved.

I wanted to create a system where creativity is stimulated, and problems can be solved, where it is a good thing to play music, and this feeling can be given to the audience as well. I wanted a mobile system, where changes and improvements are possible. What makes a good conductor leading an orchestra of this kind?

I. F.: A good conductor guards unity and energises people. Contrary to this, a bad conductor suppresses members’ personalities and instructs them as if they were slaves. How do you get keyed into the concert when you direct one hundred people with different personalities?

I. F.: For me, the major issue is being relaxed. No matter whether it is a tour or a concert at home. Eating, sleeping and taking my time to get ready – I have to be alert in the evening, but generally I am not like that, because I usually get up very early, so being totally concentrated in the evening is quite an ordeal for me. You played Symphony No. 9 by Mahler in France, Germany and in the Netherlands during this tour. You especially like Mahler. Why is he more outstanding than any other composer? Apparently, this symphony teaches listeners to cry.

I. F.: Mahler helps people to open up and unlock the inner doors of their emotions. This symphony not only teaches you to cry, but also to become enthusiastic. It is a mixture of genius and childishness. It touches people’s hearts, reminding them of their cheerful childhood, which was once full of emotions. What happens after the concert, when the doors of emotions are already wide open?

I. F.: After such a soul-stirring piece of music I feel as if every drop of emotion has been squeezed from my soul, so I am not always kind to people. Some things irritate me too much. They take me apart, forcing me to autograph CDs, attend sponsor receptions and talk to the audience. I am very much on edge then. I usually see these things as a drag, but at the same time I am too lonely to be all alone. Then the best thing is to go into the hotel bar and surround myself with my fellow musicians. And then comes bridge.

I. F.: The convolutions of my brain must be engrossed, that is why I play chess and bridge. These are my two drugs. When all the unresolved problems bother me too much, I can immediately set my mind at ease. It is dangerous, and is not a good feeling when my brain is continuously working too hard. Besides conducting the orchestra, you are also active as a composer. Before the autumn premiere of the opera entitled The Red Heifer, which adapts the subject matter of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel, you said you were scared about the response. Was there a reason for that as an internationally acclaimed conductor?

I. F.: The reason why I am scared about all this is that I am a beginner in composing: I started to write this type of music 10-15 years ago, and I still feel unexperienced. The Red Heifer is a one-act opera, not a full-length one, and I am already thinking about writing another one-act opera, which could serve as a parallel and would also be similar in its subject matter. It may be finished in a few years’ time., Adél Tossenberger