With Fresh Ears

Classic Arts Features   With Fresh Ears
Led by Ivšn Fischer, the Budapest Festival Orchestra performs at Carnegie Hall on January 15 and 16.

In 1983 conductor Iván Fischer and pianist Zoltán Kocsis founded the Budapest Festival Orchestra, a project they envisioned as a vehicle for Hungary's most talented younger musicians. This was not to be merely another orchestra, but a meticulously honed ensemble of world-class standard. Long periods of painstaking, concentrated rehearsal initially yielded three to four concerts per year. The founders intended to make these events significant occasions during Budapest's busy cultural calendar. More significantly, the concerts garnered critical attention outside of Hungary, subsequently putting the budding orchestra on the international classical music map, together with the first in their long series of recordings.

Could music director Iván Fischer, back in the BFO's formative years, have accurately predicted his orchestra's full-time status and whirlwind schedule as they now approach their 20th year of existence? A glance at the latter half of the orchestra's 2002 agenda, for example, is enough to give most hardworking musicians pause. Hot on the heels of their free, open-air June concert, held on Heroes' Square in downtown Budapest, where 30,000 people gathered to hear Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, Fischer and the BFO visited Japan for the third time, giving eight concerts in ten days, with three different programs. One month later they opened the International Music Festival of Lucerne with a program featuring Bartók's opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with soloists Ildikó Komlósi (Judith) and László Polgár (Bluebeard), and then recorded the work for Philips Classics. Their three-week fall tour covered seven European countries, with concerts in Linz (Bruckner Festival), Prague (Prague Autumn Festival), Paris (Théâtre des Champs-Élysées), Brussels, Luxembourg, Rouen (October in Normandy Festival), Le Havre, Bratislava (International Music Festival), Merano, and Verona. In addition, Fischer was the subject of a 30-minute-long documentary film aired by Hungarian television.

Many conductors past and present are often known for specific characteristics that inform their music making: Bernstein's charisma, Solti's energy, Toscanini's discipline, Ormandy's lush strings, and Mackerras's scholarship, to cite a few. Iván Fischer's formidable musicianship, however, resists pinning down. He absorbed the great Viennese tradition firsthand via Hans Swarowsky's redoubtable pedagogy. Then, in contrast, Fischer worked for two seasons assisting Nikolaus Harnoncourt, absorbing the older conductor's influential (and sometimes iconoclastic) views regarding period instruments and performance practice.

Perhaps the vibrant, translucent, and rhythmically firm textures Fischer elicits from his musicians stem from the conductor's chamber ideal. To promote BFO members' artistic development and fulfillment, a regular chamber music and chamber orchestra series supplants the organization's major orchestral concerts. Orchestra members get to play concertos in a special series devoted to Mozart and Haydn. Budapest audiences also regularly enjoy the orchestra's "Cocoa Concerts" for young children, a Sunday afternoon chamber series, as well as the open dress rehearsals in which Fischer introduces the works to be heard.

Trained as a composer, Fischer is known for encouraging the BFO musicians' creative impulses, as well as understandably indulging his own. The conductor's Philips recording of Brahms's Hungarian Dances, for example, features Fischer's original orchestrations, flanked by Gypsy musicians who add healthy dashes of improvisatory flair to the mix. New discoveries, too, emerge from Fischer's steadfast advocacy of the music of his fellow citizens. He opened the orchestra's Budapest season on September 14 with a retrospective tribute to the Austro-Hungarian composer Jenõ Takács, who celebrated his 100th birthday last year. All seven works on the concert represented a broad stylistic gamut of Takács' eclectic and unjustly underrated output.

For the BFO's current American tour, though, Fischer has built his programs around Franz Liszt's seminal achievements in the realm of illustrative music and the deep impact they had on the works of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. To encounter these three composers over the course of two carefully crafted programs in rapid succession augers well for Carnegie Hall audiences to absorb familiar music with fresh ears. Given Maestro Fischer's track record with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, such freshness is guaranteed.

Jed Distler writes frequently about the performing arts.

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