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.”






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