Showing posts with label Ivan Fischer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ivan Fischer. Show all posts

Thursday, May 12, 2016

A Magic Flute that lived up to its title

Here's my review of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer's "staged concert" of The Magic Flute the other night. They gave it back its innocence, and with it, magic aplenty. I've sometimes despaired of ever hearing this most beloved of operas performed in bearable style, but Fischer's tempi, his spirit, his humanity and his attention to detail were as close to ideal as one could dream of. http://www.criticscircle.org.uk/?ID=518&PID=5

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Save the Budapest Festival Orchestra!


The Budapest Festival Orchestra - which was in London yesterday to give a stunning performance of The Magic Flute (more of that shortly) - is being threatened with gigantic cuts to its funding from Budapest's Municipal Assembly, amounting to 200m forints - about €940,000 - reducing to 60m forints. That's reducing the funding by around three quarters. On Saturday afternoon the orchestra and its conductor, Iván Fischer, held a musical demonstration in downtown Budapest.

The BFO and Fischer on Saturday. Photo: Balázs Mohai /MTI via hungarytoday.hu

To a packed Vörösmarty Square, Fischer declared (according to Hungary Today): "First and foremost we are here to demonstrate that we really love Budapest and we know, too, that Budapest really loves the Budapest Festival Orchestra... We want a Budapest that has more music, more happiness, more love and less hate." He reportedly spoke out for minority groups, saying that the orchestra wants them to feel as welcome in Budapest as anyone else, in an environment filled with music. In the video above, Hanno Müller-Brachmann sings Sarastro's aria from The Magic Flute, in which the sage tells his assembly that there is no place for revenge and hatred in his realm.

Hungary Today further reports that Budapest's mayor, István Tarlos, has said that the city council will continue to support the orchestra to the extent that its budget permits. Richard Morrison in The Times, though, has quoted a "more sinister reason than austerity" behind the cuts. Fischer's openly humanitarian stances have not always been welcomed under Viktor Orbán's government. 

The orchestra has had to cancel some of its schools and community projects as well as some concerts in Budapest. 

The Budapest Festival Orchestra remains the only orchestra for which I drop everything and run, not only superb but also vivid, flexible, positive and endlessly creative. I'm about to write up a review of last night's Magic Flute, which was a musical dream come true. To slash support for a national treasure of this calibre would be to do something considerably worse to one's own face from spite than cutting off the nose. 

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The JDCMB Long Read: Iván Fischer

As promised a while ago, here is the Director's Cut of my interview in Budapest with Iván Fischer, the founder and conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. We covered a great deal of ground, from the unique qualities he has built up with the BFO to his original and not-uncontroversial ideas for new ways to present opera, seeking increased integration between music and drama. As more and more of us seem to despair over how to resolve what's beginning to look like a global opera crisis - with the Met struggling to fill seats, the Arena di Verona going into administration and ENO gasping for its life - Fischer is one of the few people who is venturing into seriously creative solutions. He brings Die Zauberflöte to the Royal Festival Hall in a month's time....

A shorter version of this interview recently appeared in The Independent.

Iván Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is perhaps the one orchestra for which I would drop everything and run. Founded by its music director Iván Fischer in 1983, it offers a musical cocktail that is unique: a springy, flexible musicianship which combines with red-hot intensity and all-out communicative passion, to inspiring effect. In May they visit London to perform Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) semi-staged at the Royal Festival Hall. I went to their rehearsal studio, a converted cinema in a quiet suburb of Óbuda, to see what makes Iván Fischer tick.

His office is full of schoolchildren. A class has come to listen to the rehearsal and now the maestro is sitting on his desk, answering their questions. “We do this at every rehearsal,” he explains afterwards. It’s just one of the BFO’s numerous community initiatives: “We go out to schools; we give primary school children a chance to try instruments and talk about them with our players; we take children’s operas into to schools; we have a music-based film-making competition for teenagers. Many small things, but one can really get in touch with the community, something for which I feel a great deal of responsibility.”

That responsibility extended to hiring a van and distributing aid to the refugees from the Middle East who arrived at Hungary’s borders as their first entry point to the EU last year. A few months ago in Berlin, Fischer, as conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra, recently joined forces with Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle to present a concert for the refugees. “There was a wonderful enthusiasm,” Fischer says. “Members of my Berlin orchestra do volunteer work, they teach instruments, they really put their hearts into helping the integration process. Music, language, learning about the culture, getting to know this new world that people live in, it must be looked after with great care, because integration is crucial.”

Fischer, 65, is a vivid, powerful yet almost impish personality, in possession of a quality rarer among conductors than you might expect: real creativity. His imagination seems to function non-stop. He credits the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom he studied, and who died earlier this year, for having inspired his questioning spirit: “He was an eye-opener teacher with a wonderfully critical mind,” Fischer says. “He always questioned things, he never took anything for granted. There was a lust for discovery in him and I think I learned it from him. He would say that we must question tradition, because tradition is not the main thing. Discovery is.”

The BFO at RFH, with tree, 2011. Photo: JD
One side effect of this creativity is possibly the key to the extraordinary popularity of the BFO. “When we first started, we played every concert programme once,” Fischer says. “Now each sells out three times.” Nor is it a question of desperately seeking ways to attract new audiences, he adds: “It’s more the opposite: ideas pop up because they fascinate me – this is the way I am – and somehow this attracts the new generation and new audiences. It works automatically.”

Sure enough, although the BFO might perform a standard concert one night, the next might be time for something completely different. A few years ago they offered London a late-night “audience choice” Prom, at which members of the audience were asked to pull a number designating a particular piece out of the tuba and small groups of musicians from the ranks performed while the orchestral parts for it were retrieved for a runthrough. Another time, they performed Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony with the musicians grouped around an onstage tree. At the Royal Festival Hall this caused some surprise, but a life-enhancing performance ensued (which I, for one, remember with great joy).

“It was very funny to see how ideas like this immediately get people raising their eyebrows,” Fischer twinkles. “A few feel that theatrical elements in a concert shouldn’t happen. But on the other hand, I think we present many different types of works in the same setting. The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony is clearly an excursion into nature: you hear the birds, you hear the little brook, the meadows, the folklore scene. Simply by presenting it like an installation – not a theatre, but playing it in a certain frame, such as having the orchestra seated around a tree – for me helped the feeling of the music-making and the listening. I don’t mind if some people are upset about it,” he adds. “Most people loved it!”

The new ideas keep flowing; now, says Fischer, they have a series of midnight concerts, which are much loved by students. In a further initiative, they occasionally perform in some of Hungary’s disused synagogues, drafting in rabbis to explain to the community what used to take place there, keeping alive the memory of some very dark times in the country’s history. Thousands of Hungarian Jews, including Fischer’s maternal grandparents, were deported and murdered in the Holocaust after the country joined the Second World War in 1944, and thousands of its Roma population as well. Bullet holes in the walls of some Budapest streets still bear witness to the battle between the Germans and the Russians that raged there. Some, too, are relics of the revolution against Soviet control that was brutally crushed in October 1956 (Fischer was five years old then).

Budapest from the Buda side of the Chain Bridge. Photo: JD
“I’m a passionate European,” Fischer says, “because I think the idea that this continent which finally found peace with each other should become an integrated family is far more important than all these small considerations that keep nations separate from each other. I think people should appreciate that for 70 years we didn’t have to turn against each other inside this continent and it’s a wonderful gift. It gives sense to the idea of integrated Europe.” (Brexiters should remember this point...)

Love and wisdom, the two values that feel uppermost in that outlook, are core to Mozart’s masterpiece of seeking and enlightenment, The Magic Flute. The performance that the BFO are giving at the Royal Festival Hall is part of yet another recent Fischer initiative: a trilogy of Mozart operas, semi-staged under his own direction. Critical eyebrows have been raised high over this, but Fischer refutes what he sees as an unquestioning adherence to a modern tradition in which radically new stage directors work with conservative conductors. In an era in which opera seems to have reached an impass about how to attract new audiences, how to stop alienating old ones and how to freshen up its brand for a new century, Fischer’s is one of the few really innovative ideas that has stepped into the spotlight.

“For many years I’ve tried to work on something which I call an organic, integrated opera performance, because I simply think that this idea of visual innovation and acoustic conservatism is now a little boring,” he declares. “We’ve had it now for 40 years and some great things happened. I love to work with many directors. But I’m looking for new ways to present operas and I’m specifically interested in this organic unity between music and stage – instead of polarising the two things, bringing the two things together. That means the music has to be done very theatrically and the theatre must reduce itself; just concentrate on bringing the two artforms to each other.

“Generally I find our whole music life is a little bit narrow and people have great fear of stepping out of it,” he adds. “For example, we started to talk about the opera tradition: nowadays people think the only possible opera performance is where you have an innovative director and conservative conductor and you combine the two. But imagine: in the time of Mozart there was no conductor and no director! So what are we talking about, really? I think we got stuck into a too-narrow perception of music ritual.

Fischer. Photo: Marco Borggreve
How, then, does he approach Die Zauberflöte for his special production? “I consider it a very beautifully constructed but complex masterpiece,” he says, “because it has many layers. It has the fairytale element, it has the Freemason aspect – it almost literally follows the rituals of the Freemasons – and it has this mysterious day-and-night, man-and-woman aspect, which is partly not PC today! But I don’t think that should concern us too much, because everybody understands it comes from a different century and a different environment. The wonderful thing is that Schikaneder and Mozart managed to create out of these different layers something which is clearly united in style and forms its recognisable own world which feels organic and natural. There is Tamino’s aspiration for wisdom, entering this mysterious circle, yet next to him there is the parody of the same thing, who makes us laugh because he’s one of us, and this is Papageno. How on earth did they manage to bring all these things together? I have great admiration for it!

“But where do productions fail? I think they usually fail when they emphasise one aspect too much. If one simply wants to do a fairy tale without the mystery, or something mysterious without the fairy tale element, it doesn’t really ‘click’ with the opera. I think one needs to present all the layers and find the balance.”

His association with Die Zauberflöte goes back to his childhood. The opera involves a trio of three boy singers; he sang Second Boy, aged 13, at the Hungarian State Opera. Growing up in Budapest, he and his peers – including his brother, the conductor Adam Fischer – benefitted from the country’s radical and inclusive approach to music education, based on childhood singing and pioneered by the composer Zoltán Kodály; even today the BFO occasionally startles its audiences by transforming itself into a choir and singing, rather than playing, an encore. That tradition, says Fischer, is one crucial part of the special nature of Hungarian music-making. The BFO is around 90 per cent Hungarian; it is by no means closed to musicians from other countries, though a distinctively Hungarian approach was part of its original ethos, Fischer having been eager to avoid the homogeneous, one-sound-fits-all nature of many international orchestras.

Kodály with young students. Photo: http://bridgestomusic.com.au
“Kodaly was a wonderful person and devoted his life to reforming music education, introduced a method, published exercises, a completely thought-through system which helps children. He is really to blame for the high quality of Hungarian music making and musical culture,” Fischer says. “There are a few more elements here, too, such as the geographical position. Budapest is in the cross-roads: Vienna is very near, so there’s a lot of Viennese influence and Mahler worked here. The Balkans are relatively close with wonderful rhythm and folklore traditions, and there is a high level of Gypsy musicians, who injected a lot of temperament and virtuosity into Hungarian musical culture. I would even say that Russia is not far away – many Hungarian violinists had Russian teachers. This closeness of Russia, Balkan, Vienna and the Gypsies created a wonderful melting pot, but the person who is most responsible is Kodály.”

The unique qualities of the BFO, though, go far beyond its nationality. Why has Fischer remained so devoted to it? “Because we found a completely different way to consider what an orchestra is all about,” he says. “I think the difficulty is that a symphony orchestra has to play in many different styles. In Mozart’s time everyone played in the style of Mozart. And now we have to play next to Mozart occasionally Messiaen or Bach or Bartók and the result internationally is music-making that is too uniform. The danger is that people play the notes but don’t understand the phrases, and don’t understand the meaning of the music.

“Especially with the way the orchestras work these days, with conductors who come and go, they become a little uniform and there is a lot of moaning and complaining about the geography – that one cannot distinguish between an American, French, Hungarian or Finnish orchestra. But I think there is another problem: that one plays more or less Beethoven, Ravel, Mahler and Messiaen the same way. It’s the uniform type of music-making that very often damages the meaning of the music.
 
The BFO play at their Midnight Music series. Photo: http://www.bfz.hu
“What we wanted to find back in the 1980s, and have worked on ever since, is a symphony orchestra that works with the same serious kind of fanaticism and research as a chamber group would. To have a whole orchestra work with that attitude is a wonderful journey. Always when I come back to the BFO after working with other excellent orchestras, I always feel I can breathe freely because people immediately focus on the meaning of the music, not the outside symptoms; not the technicalities but the meaning.

“We want to be a laboratory where we imagine we want to move ahead to the orchestra of the future. So what do we do? We have a group within the orchestra playing on original instruments, so we play baroque music on period instruments. We sing, so we can suddenly turn into a choir. We have a group in the orchestra who specialise in Transylvanian folk music. We try to bring many styles into the family of the orchestra.”

It would be easy for any conductor as successful as Fischer to rest on his laurels, but clearly that won’t happen any time soon. He is full of ideas for both the present and the future, in which he dreams of creating a new opera festival, ideally in Italy, to work towards his ideal of organic, integrated music and drama. Moreover, he not only conducts, but also composes: “I would never consider myself a composer,” he insists, but is nevertheless writing his third opera at present. His first, The Red Heifer, was a caustic and impassioned denunciation of a vicious anti-Semitic incident that took place in Hungary in the 1880s.

“I feel close to the heritage of, let’s say, Leonard Bernstein, who I admired because of his complex activities,” he says. “What was he? Conductor, composer, educator, pianist? For me this is a little more interesting as a lifestyle than a narrow profession. If I would only conduct symphony orchestras, going from one to the next, I think I would be a bit bored.”





Friday, March 18, 2016

X-ratings at the opera?

There's been something of a furore - or at least a few raised eyebrows - since the Royal Opera House sent round an email to ticket holders warning of graphic sex and violence (though not necessarily at the same moment) in the forthcoming new production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Katie Mitchell. There's also been an "unsuitable for children under 12" message re Boris Godunov. As Fiona Maddocks points out in The Guardian, this is potentially a slippery slope: art, a mind-broadening process, should not be delivered with apologies.

Natalie Dessay as Lucia at the Met, NY, 2011

So, does opera need: a) raised expectations of theatrical staging, b) a suitability ratings system akin to that of cinema, and/or c) a whole new approach for a new century?

First of all, why are expectations of operatic productions so low? Many opera-goers are familiar with the works they are about to hear and are likely to know the stories. Lucia is about a woman who is forced into marriage with a man she doesn't love and on their wedding night goes mad and kills him before dropping dead herself. That is pretty bloody violent. If a film director such as Quentin Tarantino tackled such a tale, and you went to the cinema to see it, you'd be fairly astonished if all that happened was that Lucia sang a nice coloratura passage accompanied by a flute and then mysteriously keeled over.

Katie Mitchell, one of today's most brilliant theatre directors, is known for her ruthless, forensic interrogation of character and drama (I've just done a big interview with her for the American magazine Opera News, which will be out soon and explores all of this) and if you only want crinolines and ringlets you probably don't go to her productions. Yet crinolines and ringlets, in dramatic terms, can be awfully boring - unless handled by an exceptional director who can bring such matters to life through evocation of character and nuance.

Operatic music and the stories it illustrates are of necessity extreme - opera at its finest reaches the moments of human experience in which words become inadequate and only music can capture the emotion at hand. (Tosca: "Vissi d'arte". Wotan's Farewell. The Countess in Figaro. And so on.) Why are expectations, then, so leery of extremity?

Rigoletto: Planet of the Apes (Munich, 2007)
First, because that was probably how opera was staged for decades and decades, until someone realised it was theatre. Secondly, because unfortunately a good deal of so-called "Regietheater" really is disappointing. I contend that that is not inherently because it is Regietheater; it is perfectly possible for radical productions to be convincing, insightful and strikingly imaginative while remaining perfectly in tune with the opera's content. Yet I once asked Joseph Calleja what had been the most ridiculous thing he'd ever had to do on stage and he promptly responded: "Singing the Duke of Mantua in a monkey suit".

Next question: is it time to introduce mandatory "suitability" ratings for opera productions? We have them for cinema, so why not opera as well? It would, however, be up to each theatre to assess its own roster - but there's no reason why every opera should be suitable for children no matter what story it tells. Besides, just imagine: Lucia di Lammermoor is X-rated and teenagers try to smuggle themselves in as a badge of honour...

This system would mean no need for grovelly, late-notice, apologies-in-advance and no refunds. People would know a bit about what they're signing up for from the start and that is fine. You don't go to a Tarantino movie expecting soft-focus romanticism. And you don't expect that from Katie Mitchell either.

Anyway, I'm more worried about this production's conductor, whose Robert le Diable was so dull that it made an iffy opera pretty much intolerable. Perhaps he'll be more comfortable with Donizetti.

When I went to Budapest last week I interviewed a very different conductor, Iván Fischer, about his glorious Budapest Festival Orchestra and especially his semi-staged production of The Magic Flute, which is coming to London soon. His idea is to explore "organic, integrated opera" which brings the drama and the music together - the latter having to be performed dramatically, the former being scaled down somewhat. Fischer, one of the most genuinely creative minds on the podium at present, drew heavy criticism for a venture into this when he brought one to Edinburgh, but his idea is well worth exploring. His take on it is that for 40 years now there has been a polarisation between stage and pit: the former expected to be radical and innovative, the latter expected to be deeply conservative (with "original instruments" et al). This polarisation has become a trope, a cliché effectively, and besides it doesn't always make for a satisfying overall experience. It's time, he says, to try something new. More about this when the feature comes out. I find his analysis cogent and agree with him that it is time to look for a new way forward, rather than just chugging along in the same old tramlines.

And meanwhile I can't wait to see what Katie Mitchell has done with Lucia di Lammermoor. It opens on 7 April.




Wednesday, March 09, 2016

A Hungarian dance...

More of a quick march than a dance, really, but I've just spent 24 hours in Budapest, where I went to meet a remarkable and highly creative musician. Those who are not only conductors but also composers, creators, communicators and founders, with an instinct for the big picture and an ability to build audiences at a time like this, are, to put it mildly, few and far between. I've often written here about the joys of listening to the Budapest Festival Orchestra, and I've talked briefly to Iván Fischer before, but this was my first in-depth interview with him and I look forward to bringing you the finished piece when it's out. He and the BFO will be in London in May to perform The Magic Flute at the Royal Festival Hall.

Budapest is, of course, full of music and tributes to its musicians. Here's the latest new memorial: to Sir Georg Solti, outside the lavish Art Nouveau marvels of the Franz Liszt Academy.




Liszt Ferenc himself, naturally, gets everywhere. I paid a happy visit to the Liszt Museum, in his apartment just off Andrássy Street, where one may view several of his pianos - including one by Chickering & Sons with 'Franz Liszt' inscribed in inlaid wood, with a giant wrought-silver music stand glorifying said musician. Downstairs is the dedicated Liszt Research Centre.

In my perambulations around downtown Pest I saw more statues of Liszt than any other individual - and the airport is named after him, too (how about renaming Heathrow Henry Purcell Airport, chaps? Perhaps that wouldn't be fair to Purcell...). This bust of him is simply a fountain on a street corner between the Basilica and the Danube...



Here is a plaque to Joszef Joachim, who lived in a big and beautiful late 19th-century apartment block with ornate marble and curved windows, near the start of Vaci Street (the main pedestrian shopping street) and about one and a half minutes from Gerbaud's - the gorgeous big coffee house that offers some of the best cakes I've ever had, as I remember from my last visit some seven or eight years ago in the days when I could still eat them.




I also found myself by accident on the street where, according to the one extant biography of her and her sisters, Jelly d'Arányi was born - Wesselényi Street, which is right beside the magnificent synagogue of Dohány Street.

There's a cat café in Budapest and I didn't have time to go there, but I'm now wondering if there's perhaps room for another...with gluten-free specialities and a family of resident Somali kitties and a Gypsy band to play every weekend... I even found a Ricki lookalike in stone on the Chain Bridge...




In a brief visit like this, you see only the superficial enchantment of a place like Budapest. A local journalist friend recommended a restaurant round the corner from the opera house (the theatre itself has an extraordinary fairy-tale foyer, full of colour and mosaics and soaring staircases) and after a feast of pomegranaty duck and a glass of local wine I took a long stroll through the centre of the city to see the Beautiful Black-and-Gold Danube.




One thing disturbed and slightly unnerved me, though: I didn't see any Roma. Violinists or otherwise. When I visited Budapest to research Hungarian Dances about ten years ago, no street corner was complete without a busker; indeed, wherever you went, you'd hear a violin somewhere, with the sweetness, gentleness, sparkle and slidiness so characteristic of Gypsy style. I remember a pair of musicians, clad in the trademark waistcoats and hats, busking on the square close to Gerbaud's, clarinet raised and hornlike, fiddle rhythmic and irresistible. Now: silence. Then, you'd find the Roma women in headscarves and long skirts, their faces weathered, their eyes deep and somehow knowing, begging near the tourist spots and along Andrássy. But this time I encountered not one. I would like to know what has become of them and I don't think it's the weather; this was a spring-like visit - about 11 degrees and warmer in the sun yesterday morning. Budapest without its "Gypsies" is missing a part of its soul.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Leading Hungarian conductor sends aid to refugees

Iván Fischer, founder and music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, has a foundation which this month has been taking action to aid the refugees arriving in vast numbers at Hungary's strengthening borders.

While ugly scenes fill our screens and papers as the country's forces rebuff crowds of desperate people with tear gas and water cannon, others been doing all they can to help. The Iván Fischer Foundation hired a lorry to help civilian aid organisations and sent supplies of water, juice and baby food to the refugees in places like Gyor and Hegyeshalom. On Tuesday they reported that they hoped to reach the refugees on the Serbian side of the closed border.

Sometimes it takes artists to do the real leading when politicians fail (please read this fantastic article by the poet George Szirtes).

Google Translate seems oddly to tackle Hungarian better than certain other languages, something that's proving very useful at the moment. Here is an article from Origo in which Fischer talks about what he's been doing and why.

He suggests that if any good can come out of the current crisis, it would be to convince Hungarians to drop their prejudices. He dreams of a more tolerant society: "Tolerance just means that I do not watch a different religion, skin colour, or origin - only the person." The issue at stake is not merely religion, but poverty: "Do we really want to draw a concrete wall between ourselves and the world of the poor?" he protests. And what would he like the government to do instead? "Show the world the really wonderful Hungarian hospitality!"

Music can play its role too. It is, he says, "a huge tool capable of miracles... It should be, and it is, possible to awaken people to have a lot of goodness within them."

Fischer's news appears on his Facebook page and in this video from the back of the lorry he thanks the volunteers. (In Hungarian and English.)

People show their true colours in crises. Fischer is emerging as one of his country's real heroes. As for the BFO, they are due in the UK in the spring with their tour of The Magic Flute, and I for one can't wait. I'd go and hear them play anything, anywhere, any time.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra - more!

I've reviewed the second of the Budapest Festival Orchestra/Iván Fischer Proms for The Arts Desk. Two Brahms symphonies, five stars.
About 10 minutes into the Brahms Third Symphony I wanted to check a name in the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s programme. I dared to turn a page. Bad idea. Such preternatural stillness had settled over the sold-out Royal Albert Hall that the gesture could probably have been spotted from the balcony. A motionless, virtually breathless audience is a rarity even at the Proms, where quality of listening is venerated; still, to hold around 6000 people quite so rapt with attention is an extraordinary skill in orchestra and conductor. But then, the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer are no ordinary visitors...
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Must great conductors be control freaks?

After the first of two Proms by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, last night at the RAH, I'm pondering about what a great conductor can teach us about how to run things. Because running things, in general, is not the strong point of the planet right now. As you know, institutions of all kinds are mired in hesitation, disagreement, argument, ideology, trumped-up fears re political correctness, and so forth - a situation that puts our ideals and long-established triumphs (like the NHS and the BBC) in jeopardy. We need some life lessons from music: when it works as wonderfully as this, why does it do so? What are they doing right? What general principles can we extrapolate from that that might give us a helping hand somewhere else?

There is no other orchestra that I run to hear, whatever they're doing, wherever they're doing it. With the Budapest Festival Orchestra I don't look at the programme; I just go. Because it'll be fantastic. And they've never let me down yet. Their founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, has a mesmerising platform presence, like Kastschai the magician, and a feel for both the bigger picture and minute detail that is many cuts above your average concert experience.

Yesterday at the Proms the BFO and Fischer performed a mixed programme of central European fizzy treats - Brahms Hungarian Dances, Strauss waltzes and gallops, a Dvorák Legend and the Kodály Dances of Galanta - alongside possibly the best account of the Schubert 'Unfinished' Symphony I've ever heard. Within the dances, every phrase was filled with ideas, meaning, the essence of its existence drawn out: try the razor-smooth, heart-melting arch in The Blue Danube (the Danube is much more beautiful and much bluer in Budapest than it is in Vienna, btw), or the perfectly poised rubato in the Hungarian dances - true rubato, a delicious lingering and spirited catch-up, time robbed and regained.

The Schubert was dark as night, with hushed tremolandi through which one held one's breath and soft solos peering over the edge of the emotional ravine. Each section of the orchestra is so unified that it sounds like one super-instrument, whether the double-basses - ranged in a row along and above the back of the orchestra, providing a wonderful solid foundation for the sound - or the most delicate of first violin sections, poised in the long notes of the second movement as if hanging suspended in outer space (a notorious bow-shake moment, but not a hint of that here). They even went on to play the fragment of scherzo that Schubert left behind - fascinating indeed, though it proved to be an idea that doesn't share the quality of the existing movements and was possibly abandoned for a good reason.

The control was absolute, as if Fischer were a pianist, playing the ensemble the way a deep-thinking virtuoso would the finest Steinway. The BFO seems to be Orchestra Fischer in the way that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is Orchestra Barenboim: an ensemble so finely attuned to its conductor that every flicker of thought is noted and responded to, the understanding entire and unanimous. When tiny things did go wrong, as happened perhaps once or twice (possibly thanks to the awkward acoustic on the RAH stage, which can take some getting used to), it was audible because everything else was, to put it bluntly, perfect.

Now, this sort of near-perfection doesn't happen by itself. This is a conductor in utter control of every last detail. Only by being, essentially, a control freak can a musician achieve this degree of finesse and unanimity. Take the true greats, like Carlos Kleiber: those who have seen his scores tell me that they are minutely annotated, with phenomenal detail and exactitude. Take Debussy's manuscripts: to create that glorious whole, full of colours and atmosphere, takes vast and analytical precision during creation.

So to do something worthwhile, to say something worth saying, to put across the message that is worth hearing, takes two things: the vision to create it, and the control to make it happen. A great conductor, therefore, is of necessity a visionary control-freak. A benign and hopefully enlightened dictator. One who works his players very, very hard - with players who are willing to work as hard as that. It can't be otherwise if you want the results to be as good as what we heard last night.

More than one conductor has said to me in interviews, when I've asked them about this aspect of their profession, that the idea of a democratic model in musical interpretation just doesn't work. I still hope someone will come along and prove them wrong - later this autumn I'm hoping to visit Spira Mirabilis in Italy, for example, to see how they have built their alternative model.

But until someone can prove otherwise, the evidence is that great interpretations come from musicians of genius, and that if such a figure is to get his/her message through an orchestra, he/she has to persuade the players to give, and to surrender.

I think that is what happens in the BFO. Of course, it is also unique in another respect: its players are mostly Hungarian and share a specific background and training with one another and with Fischer. (There seems to be one exception: a name in the brass section that can only be Irish.) This is the exact opposite of an organisation such as the World Orchestra for whatever-it-is - somehow I can't buy into the Peace thing right now - which now and then brings together players from all over the world who do not usually work together, with end results that can be exciting one-offs in their own way. The BFO, by contrast, is as tight an ensemble as a top string quartet. The two approaches are like the proverbial chalk and cheese.

Conductors of Fischer's calibre do not grow on trees, of course, and he is one of just a handful of living conductors whom I, personally, would run to hear at every possible opportunity (the others are Barenboim, Jansons, Nelsons and Rattle). But can these visionary, galvanising, strong-willed characters set a model for world leadership? Dictators in politics tend to be a very bad thing indeed, because they are rarely benign, rarely functioning as they do for the sake of something greater than themselves. Our maestri have (we hope) the composer's interest at heart, rather than those of their wealthy cronies or crooked party donors - yes, you have to please the sponsors when you're off the platform, and don't we know it, but once you are doing your job, that must be left aside. If you are performing great music, you won't be cornered into using your own strength to push someone else's dubious agenda when actually in the flow of your artistic creation. There's room on the concert platform for visionary thinking and the realising of its finest dreams. We could use something similar on the world stage too: leaders with altruistic vision and control-freakery to devote to making it a reality.

Dream on... But meanwhile, come and hear the BFO and Fischer tonight, when their second Prom involves Brahms's third and fourth symphonies.

You can hear last night's Prom on the iPlayer here for four weeks: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8ny3 (part one) and http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04f8nzx (part two)

And here is the Proms Plus talk in which Petroc Trelawny hosts a discussion of the current cultural situation in Hungary, which is not a pretty tale.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Budapest Festival Orchestra, appealing on every level

Woke up to news today that someone in Japan has invented a way to make violin strings out of spider webs. These are said to give "a soft and profound timbre" compared to traditional metal or gut strings. They're also supposed to be super-strong. More here from the BBC - including a sample of the sound.

The violin sounds I was listening to last night, though, would take a lot of beating. The Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer were joined (at the Royal Festival Hall's Shell Classic International Series) by Renaud Capucon (right) in an ear-whirling, ceiling-raising account of a work that is rarely performed live because it's too damned difficult: Lalo's Symphonie Espagnole. This piece is to Paganini what a triple chocolate muffin is to a plain choc-chip job. You can't live with a violinist and not know it, but otherwise it's played so infrequently that even some eager concert-goers I met in the hall had never heard of it and wanted to know if Lalo is still alive and which part of Spain he came from. (Background here.)

Capucon is a diminutive figure armed with the solidity and presence of a premier-league footballer, a focused and dispassionate performance style a la Heifetz, a gigantic, scarlet tone and a Guarneri del Gesu that used to belong to his mentor, Isaac Stern. The opening notes were a bit wild, but in a way that was a relief: it means he's human. Thereafter nothing could have shaken his security. Fischer's sophisticated accompanying let the soloist shine out in this Olympian marathon of a concerto, while Lalo's rhythms bounced beneath, passed from group to group like soft rubber balls.

Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, under Fischer's super-charged baton, rose up as far more than a piece of 19th-century exoticism: this was musical storytelling at its most compelling, the second movement almost visible as a filmic battle scene for which no image could match the atmosphere of sound; and you could almost feel the spray of the storm in the finale as Sinbad's wrecked ship shudders towards the ocean bed. Fischer placed the harp at the front, opposite the leader (the eloquent Violetta Eckhardt), so that the solo moments, together with the BFO's unquakable clarinet and oboe, became almost a concertante group within the great romantic orchestra.

Details and articulation were wrought with narrative significance, the tonal palette a panorama of aural richness. The BFO's string tone does, when required, produce that heady, extraordinary, deep-dug, sock-it-to-em, Hungarian smoked paprika tone - but the key point is that it's reserved for the moments that need it, controlled by a Fischer who looked for all the world like Fokine's Kastschei from The Firebird (right - the Royal Ballet, photo by Patrick Baldwin), all magic fingers and broad, low, sweeping stance. Everything is thought through, then - yet the spontaneity of this orchestra's performance never suffers. The BFO breathes as one; they enter the flow (a phenomenon described by their fellow Hungarian, the philosopher Mihaly Czikszentmihaly) and fly together. If every orchestral concert were to be as vivid, alive and truly artistic as this, I'd be at one, voluntarily, every single night.

The BFO is not, however, an entirely happy place at present, and the presence of Brahms's Tragic Overture at the start of the programme felt like ominous commentary, even if it was not intended that way. The orchestra played it as if it were a matter of life and death. And it may be so. Funding cutbacks in Hungary are hitting the orchestra hard; at present, or so I'm told, they don't even know what their budget will be next season. I hope to bring you more details of their situation soon, but if you loved the concert as much as I did and you want to contribute to their continuation, you can help them by joining the Friends of the Budapest Festival Orchestra - there is a British Friends group and also an American one. In the UK contact: british.friends.bfo@gmail.com. The Hungarian government would have to be stark raving mad to let this orchestra go to the wall, but as things stand, anything could happen, so the BFO's international activities are becoming more vital than ever. If you love them, help them!

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hooray for Haydn

In case you missed listings site Bachtrack's latest set of annual statistics yesterday, here they are: http://www.bachtrack.com/concert-opera-league-tables-2011

So, we learn that Handel's Messiah is still the most often performed work (no, really?), and - golly gosh - Liszt entered the top ten of most performed composers in his bicentenary year, while Chopin and Schumann were virtually semi-retired by comparison, perhaps after everyone overdosed on them in 2010. But the biggest eyebrow-raise goes to the Busiest Conductor list, which puts The Dude in top spot with Ivan Fischer at no.2 - and Valery Gergiev, formerly no.1, not even up there. Intriguing.

But here is something that really caught my eye: Haydn is consistently amongst the top ten most often performed composers, hovering around no.6-8 - for 2011 it's 8. It often seems to me that this great-hearted, pure-spirited and tirelessly original composer tends to get short shrift from the concert-going public, compared to his friend Mozart and his pupil Beethoven. But perhaps that isn't the case after all: quietly and decisively, 'Papa Haydn' is getting his just desserts after all, and they may contain chocolate.

Here is one of his piano masterpieces to enjoy this weekend: the Andante and Variations in F minor, played by none other than Paderewski.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ivan Fischer on the future of the symphony orchestra

I just found Ivan Fischer's video blog on the Budapest Festival Orchestra's website. Here he talks about the future of the symphony orchestra - and reveals in a few succinct sentences exactly what he thinks of 'crossover' and why.



While Hungary's political and economic situation goes through what looks increasingly like hell and high water don't forget why it matters everywhere else. Let's hope that this towering musical tradition, with its purity, clear-sightedness and intensity of purpose, won't be subsumed by yet another destructive ideological steamroller. The riches of that tradition are exemplified today by Fischer and his brother Adam, Andras Schiff, Gabor Takacs-Nagy and many, many more.

A year ago Andras Schiff alerted everyone to the Hungarian political situation with a letter to the Washington Post. But of course a lot of people said what they usually say when musicians talk about politics, to the effect of "shut up and play the piano", and now he doubts he will ever return to his native land. This is extremely unfortunate, because he was right and he should have been listened to - but the opportunity to make a bigger stand early enough was effectively lost. The truth in the overview of such situations can often be astutely commented upon by those who are outside it - people who care, but whose interests are not vested - and as great musicians tend to be intelligent, passionate people whose gifts have earned them a world stage, sometimes we really ought to take some notice of what they say.

In Senegal, another world-renowned musician, Youssou N'Dour, is running for president.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Triple Paprika! 'Hungarian Dances' is in Proms Lit Fest

Stop-press news: I'm reliably informed that my novel HUNGARIAN DANCES is to feature as one of Tasmin Little's chosen books in the Proms Literary Festival this afternoon. Tasmin will be discussing her literary favourites at the Royal College of Music at 5pm and the talk is broadcast the interval of tonight's Prom on BBC Radio 3. An extract will be read - I understand they've picked a passage about Gypsy music and the violin in particular. Catch it at the college, on the radio or later on the iPlayer (or catch the book here). That is Paprika part 1 - or chronologically speaking, part 3.

Paprika part 2: Today comes hot on the heels of a truly fabulous evening with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer last night. It's all true: Ivan Fischer did indeed become the first conductor at the Proms ever to throw a toy animal from the podium into the arena.

The BFO is unmistakeable for its characteristic mix of suave, smooth sound and absolutely direct, deeply engaged musicianship; as I said in the feature yesterday, when they play you feel the love. This was no exception: they made me fall in love with Mahler in earnest. After two years of head-bludgeoning Mahler-anniversary overkill, that takes some doing.

The first half was unusual for its mix of irony and magic: first, fizzing, demonic Liszt. Mephisto Waltz for once was convincing, seductive, genuinely sensual - and whatever did that harpist do towards the end? Whatever it was, she deserves a medal. Mahler's Blumine blossomed gently and suavely as the concert equivalent of a 'prequel'. And the Liszt Totentanz - usually a bit of a waste of space - proved a brilliant vehicle for the pianism of Dejan Lazic. He is a seriously classy player with a singing, certain touch and a terrific feel for Lisztian flair. He also brought along an unusual encore: a spoof fugue by an Italian composer, Giovanni Dettori, which would seem familiar to the younger members of the audience. It did. Fortunately I'd taken my niece with me; she kindly explained that this brilliantly-wrought Bach-style piece was based on a Lady Gaga song. (Now Neil Fisher of The Times has tweeted a link to the sheet music - so you can see it is real!)

And so, Mahler 1. Empathy, detail, brilliance, flow and energy: everything was there. Fischer's was a Mahler straight from the heart and guts, tempered by a sensible and incredibly perceptive brain. Shaping of narrative couldn't have been more convincing if it tried - especially the final movement, with its gradations of dynamic in the distantly approaching triumph. I'm a great fan of the orchestra configuration preferred by Fischer at this concert, with the double basses raised in a row along the back providing a solid, oaky depth across the board and the first and second violins opposite each other at the front of the stage. The tone produced is balanced, clear and homogeneous. And this Mahler symphony, for the first time, felt too short. I could happily have listened to it all night.

But that's where the third part of 'triple paprika' enters: the late-night Prom, complete with flying bunnyrabbit. The orchestra summoned us back from interval fun with one of the violinists playing some Transylvanian folk music while everyone settled down. The orchestra appeared in its everyday clothes and Fischer took up a microphone to explain how the event would work. We each had a raffle-ticket; the tuba player perambulated through arena and stalls asking punters to draw a number. Three numbers, three pieces, and sometimes a flying rabbit to catch, to choose another. Then the vote, which got everyone beautifully heated as we shouted for our favourites and hissed when someone tried to pick the Ravel Bolero.

Everything came off very slickly and rapidly - obviously the band, its conductor and its librarian are a dab hand at the logistics - and between numbers, while the parts were found and distributed there were chances for small groups of musicians to strut their solo stuff: a brass ensemble piece from the movie Eight and a Half, a Telemann piece for four string players, some Bartok violin duos, some more folk music, four percussionists doing a brilliant body-percussion turn and, last but not least, the tuba player with a didgeridoo.

So what did we end up with? Kodaly Dances of Galanta; Bartok Romanian Folk Dances; Strauss Music of the Spheres Waltz; Glinka Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila; and the Hungarian March from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. The idea is that the orchestra has no idea what it's going to play beforehand and has had no rehearsal, so anything can happen. Obviously, they knew certain of these numbers inside out and backwards. They gave the Hungarian pieces a terrific workout; the most challenging item seemed to be the Strauss waltz, involving sensual and well-calibrated ebb, flow and old-world rubato.

Two conclusions to draw: first, that this was an inspired format for orchestral display of the first water. The solo spots let the individuals shine as they can and should, and if the BFO plays like that unrehearsed....pas mal, hein? Ivan proved a great showman too: "Pass the tuba to somebody who thinks it's all a trick," he instructed. Secondly, the informality of the event made it terrific fun and the music and musicians shone all the brighter for that.

Once again, it was the usual Budapest Festival Orchestra achievement of sending you home walking on air, feeling glad to be alive. Could we do Audience Choice here? Well, whyever not?

No video available from last night, but here they are playing The Blue Danube in Heroes' Square, Budapest. The Danube, taken literally, is much bluer in Budapest than Vienna.








Saturday, May 14, 2011

After the outage...

Our host site was down all yesterday and there's a lot to catch up on now. (Is the John Lewis warranty system also powered by Blogger? Today their system is down...as I know because our fridge is bust...)

First, the 'Classic Brits'. Whatever you think about their abandonment of those two little letters '-al', they had a handful of really good winners the other night. Best of all, Tasmin Little won the Critic's Award for her CD of the Elgar Violin Concerto (on Chandos). As you will know, dear readers, she also got a JDCMB Ginger Stripe Award for it last winter solstice. The disc is seriously, highly recommended. And since other awards went to Tony Pappano and Alison Balsom, things can't be quite so dreadful and doom-laden without those two little letters as many would have us think.

Next, James MacMillan's new chamber opera, Clemency. Fascinating to hear this so soon after the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, since it proves that less really can be more. A co-commission between the ROH, the Britten Sinfonia and Scottish Opera, it's spare, concentrated, highly characterised, and packs an extraordinary number of difficult questions into just 45 minutes of music. My review is in The Independent.

Over in Hungary, JDCMB favourite conductor Iván Fischer has given a warm endorsement to JDCMB other favourite conductor, Gábor Takács-Nagy, who has just been appointed principal guest conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The news comes via the lucky old Manchester Camerata, where Gabor takes over as principal conductor in the season ahead. Iván says: "There will be a very important change in the life of the BFO from next season onwards. Gábor Takács-Nagy, who was our former concert master, has been nominated Principal Guest Conductor of the orchestra. There are many conductors in the world who can get orchestras to play together but there are very few who can profoundly inspire. Gábor Takács-Nagy is one of them."

TODAY there's a live cinecast from The Met of Die Walkure starring Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund. Coming soon to a cinema near you, but if you can't get in there are a few 'encore' showings tomorrow and even Monday. Oh, and it also stars Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde, Bryn Terfel as Wotan and Eva-Maria Westbroek (aka Anna Nicole) as Sieglinde. Playbill Arts has 20 Questions with Jonas Kaufmann, in which our tenor says rather charmingly that "every composer has weak und strong points". Intermezzo disapproves of his admission that he likes Dire Straits.

Faure fans who play the piano will be very glad to see Roy Howat's spanking new Urtext edition of Glorious Gabriel's Beautiful Barcarolles, all 13 of them, clearly and readably presented by Peters Edition and correcting all manner of mistakes, misreadings and misapprehensions that apparently crept into earlier publications. Roy's Faure editions have been arriving thick and fast over the past - well, probably a decade, come to think of it - and they're evidently a labour of love. This one may well tempt me back to the piano for a long-overdue wallow. Read more about it here.

And last but absolutely not least, my interview with the lovely South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza was in The Independent yesterday. Pumeza grew up in the townships of the Cape Town area in the last decade of apartheid. Next week she'll be singing at the Wigmore Hall in a showcase concert of the Classical Opera Company, and will be doing a duet with white South African soprano Sarah-Jane Brandon. That wouldn't have been possible in South Africa a couple of decades ago. Go hear them.

Now, about that fridge...