Forty years ago he decided to create an orchestra unlike any other: a laboratory, an experimental workshop that would give birth to a different, unorthodox orchestra. Today, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is the musical crème de la crème, and Iván Fischer is greeted by thunderous ovation befitting celebrities in the biggest concert halls in the world. He is at home in Amsterdam, London, Berlin, and the small village of Csobánka alike. Taxi drivers recognize him, and cashiers in little Budapest corner shops congratulate him. An interview about freedom, creativity, dependence on power, the BFO Academy, and things that the audience doesn’t see.
They rehearsed Puccini in the rehearsal hall in Selmeci utca. The Italian composer died exactly 100 years ago. The Italian government created a Puccini Memorial Committee, who, in turn, invited the Budapest Festival Orchestra to give two concerts in Lucca, Puccini’s birth town, in a small theater that the master himself had worked in. This is what Iván Fischer and Co were rehearsing for at the beginning of November. After the rehearsal, the musicians scattered, and the conductor closed the door of his office for about twenty minutes while he took care of a few phone calls, and then we sat down. He was rather somber for the first few questions, giving brief answers, then he became more affable and chattier. Towards the end of our tight timeframe, he even encouraged me to ‘feel free to ask; let’s not make it worse because of that.' By the way, ‘make it good’ became a proverbial Fischerism, an instruction that his musicians have heard day in and day out for forty years. It’s a basic expectation.
This summer I saw an amusing video that you uploaded to Facebook. You were swimming in a pool in a gorgeous location, the sun was shining, and you looked into the camera and said you weren’t enjoying yourself in the pool because you were missing the concert hall, and you couldn’t wait to be on stage in a tuxedo at the next event in Lucerne. It made me wonder, do you not enjoy breaks at all? How do you recharge?
Obviously that was irony as the sun was shining and I spent my break in a stunning location. I was just out swimming when a message came through, asking me to urgently send a video to the Lucerne Festival to help them promote the event. This is perfect, I thought, I’m in the water, bring the camera, I’ll tell everyone that even though I’m on vacation and swimming around at the moment, I can’t wait to walk out on stage in Lucerne. I was actually really looking forward to it. It was completely genuine and spontaneous.
That’s absolutely how it came across. Just as when I had the chance to experience the same genuine enjoyment that you sustained for an entire tour in the UK; not only you but the whole orchestra. And I also realized that this is exactly like elite sports. A tight schedule all year, with one tour after the other, where you rehearse in the morning and perform in the evening. In between tours you record albums and perform domestic concerts. This fall and winter alone, you’ll be going to Lucca, Wuhan, and Beijing — and all of this has been going on for years and years. What do you need, primarily, to operate at such a pace?
I don’t think the pace is that hard, it is the logistics that has to be done right. If the logistics of who’s doing what and when is planned well, if we don’t waste each other’s time, then it all works like a well-oiled machine. But if there’s a lot of unnecessary back and forth, if people complicate each other’s lives, then it really does seem like there are too many concerts or too many activities of all kinds. But if we don’t hinder each other, there’s no problem.
When I was talking to the musicians, everyone highlighted something different that they considered crucial about your role, and what it means to be Iván Fischer. Musician, leader, performer, showman, secretary of finance, coach, music historian, therapist, even mass therapist — these are the kinds of things they said. What do you consider crucial for the BFO to work as it does?
Probably something that the general public doesn’t see, which is figuring things out. For instance, we’re in the middle of the 2023/2024 season, and what the musicians and the audience perceive is only the execution. What they see is that I have to teach the piece at rehearsals, conduct it at the concert, and take care of the nitty-gritty in between as a manager, but that’s only the icing on the cake. This takes up about 10% of my energy.
Ninety percent of the work is figuring out what makes up the 2025/2026 or 2026/2027 season. We only have key dates from these seasons but we have to figure out everything: the programs, what types of concerts the orchestra should play, who we should invite, and which guest musicians, who should play in the orchestra, and how much.
So the entire seemingly distant season is a calendar that’s half empty at the moment. This calendar is going to fill up with details, and that’s the biggest slice of my job. I wouldn’t even consider it work but pure creative possibility instead, as we truly have to figure everything out. The way I can illustrate this is that I have two colleagues, Anna (Anna-Berenika Haefliger, artistic direction – ed.) and Krisztina (Krisztina Zöld, operations manager – ed.). Anna takes care of the long term planning, so she is already scheduling for 2025 and beyond. Then Krisztina directs the execution and coordination. She is responsible for the current season: she is in charge of what’s happening tomorrow, the day after, in a month or two; she arranges the piano tuning, the rehearsal venue, keeps the musicians and visiting artists informed, and so on.
I’m in daily contact with both Anna and Krisztina, but I talk to Anna about ten times as much as to Krisztina. I mention that to illustrate that designing the long term schedule is the most important task.
What did the long term vision look like in 1983? When you started the orchestra and burst onto the scene at the Budapest Academy of Music on December 26th with a massive concert – how far ahead did the vision stretch back in those days?
Back then it was the principles that mattered. I was focused on creating an orchestra unlike any other: a laboratory, an experimental workshop that would give birth to a different, unorthodox orchestra. It took years to develop new ways of thinking, to define and plan the innovation that was needed for that result to happen. After all that, it was like turning the ignition on.
There are artists that depend on the goodwill of the powers that be, and can’t speak freely. This is nothing new, I might add. Even Mozart’s father advised him to please be cautious and avoid upsetting the archbishop of Salzburg.
Am I right in thinking that the benchmark has never been Hungary, but rather, it was abroad, even the global elite?
This was one of the biggest misunderstandings around the founding. The first generation of musicians, the crop of ‘83, felt that the benchmark was abroad, the grand orchestras abroad. I thought the opposite. My idea was that we were trying to do something different, something better than all those famous orchestras abroad. This was a significant misunderstanding between that first generation of musicians and myself. I wanted to create a reform orchestra, while they wanted to build the great Hungarian orchestra modeled on foreign examples. This led to numerous discussions and debates, but at last everyone became clear on what the goal truly was.
When we talked eight years ago, you said the Festival Orchestra was facing a major change, and from then on the goal was to perform a true society-wide service. Have you succeeded?
I think we have. It’s very interesting, actually, that the last time we talked was eight years ago because that is when we truly started our community activities. Up until that point the BFO had only ever played in concert halls. That was when we made the decision to allocate a few weeks each season for smaller ensembles to play in schools, retirement homes, or hospitals. We appeared in many different venues that had nothing to do with classical music, and we wanted to connect with those who would not normally buy tickets. The idea of taking the music to a much wider slice of society was an enormous paradigm shift for us, the start of a new era.
What motivated you to do this? What can music provide, other than being enjoyable to listen to? Why is it important to reach as many people as possible?
It is always worth thinking about the underlying purpose. Of course there are many orchestras around the world whose central mission has faded into oblivion, and things run on autopilot. And of course providing the audience with a delightful experience is also a valid purpose, as is keeping the orchestra going or making sure the musicians have a job.
I envisioned a much wider mission. In my mind a community (in this case the capital or the country) maintains an orchestra in order to elevate and improve the cultural education of the population, and to satisfy their cultural needs. It is not enough to cater to the few thousand usual concertgoers: we should serve the needs of those that don’t normally buy tickets and never make it to the concert hall. This is a service, a mission: this is the orchestra’s reason for existing.
Do you have anything left up your sleeve, any other ideas to widen this circle?
I think the Festival Orchestra has already accomplished this goal very well. I don’t think there’s a lot of room for expansion here. We’re about to move into a completely different direction.
I really am glad that we talk every eight years because this allows the different eras of the orchestra to emerge. Right now I’m thinking of launching an educational project in the orchestra, something we have not tried before. A dedicated program to teach and train the young generation.
How is this going to work in practice? Are you going to continue the education of those that graduate from music schools?
Many orchestras operate so called orchestra academies, for instance the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra or the Amsterdam Concertgebouw – I could go on. This means that young musicians receive training while they already play in, and work with, the orchestra. This is a kind of internship, exactly like in business life. They participate in the work and learn the ropes. And in our case, I would add that the young musicians not only build their professional knowledge, but also acquire the innovative mentality that sets the BFO apart from any other orchestra in the world. We would teach them a creative and responsible attitude that includes, for example, a commitment to the community or serving the community.
This is going to be an international academy. Young students from abroad are going to accompany our players to schools in Budapest. They are going to play for the children or lead activities with them, which they’ll also learn from our musicians, and they’ll put on concerts like that all over Europe. We are going to export our community experience.
Is the academy also necessary because it’s hard to find the next generation? To what extent is this an issue for the BFO?
I don’t feel that this a problem at all. The subject arose because the orchestra has gone through two major phases and we are about to enter our third. The first one was about creating a high standard, the second was about serving the community, and we have all amassed a certain experience in these domains. Now, in this third phase we want to pass the expertise on to a young generation so they can share it all around the world.
What is the level of music education like in Hungary?
I think it’s still very high. In my opinion we actually owe everything to Kodály. Kodály launched a nationwide music education, from kindergarten lessons, through the choir movement, to the music school network, that was sensational, that still puts Hungary in the lead in terms of music education. In the music elementary schools, as they were called in my childhood, children were taught solfège and to sing in tune. We used to sing a lot in children’s choirs, and later in adult choirs, which was wonderful.
Then the whole system slowly started to crumble, and I’m not saying this was anyone’s fault. It was a natural erosion because individual schools became more autonomous. Now the parent, the teacher, and the student might want something different from music lessons, for instance they might want more physics, math, gym or whatever else. Not to mention pop music has gained a lot of ground in schools. Only traces remain of the pristine Kodály method that existed in my childhood - but it does still exist. It is still wonderfully valuable.
Hungarian musical education makes children happier. Choir singing improves breathing, it's healthy, good for social interaction, and also improves our aesthetic sensibility. It’s an incredibly valuable thing in every aspect. Sadly, the Kodály method is fading and weakening, but it’s still significantly better than in any other country that I know. This is still a foundation you can build on.
Does the Festival Orchestra have the recognition it deserves in Hungary? We often read about international recognition.
That’s a complex question. On the one hand we have enormous positive audience feedback. After Covid the audience has fully returned to the concert hall, and, well, people in the grocery store recognize me, taxi drivers recognize me, everybody seems to know what we’re working on and they congratulate us. And it is wonderful that the BFO enjoys stable financial support from the state, from the capital, and we’re extremely grateful for being able to work.
But if we look at the negative side of this, I see a Hungarian orchestra that managed to break into the highest global echelons; it is part of the, how shall I put it, Champions League, which is an exceptional achievement in itself. But the other orchestras at the top, our international competitors, have received significantly more support than we do domestically.
And I don’t just mean financial support. When, for example, an orchestra from Berlin or LA performs, they’re accompanied by their local community: politicians, curators, businesspeople – masses of delegations. They are proud of the successes of the orchestra, they participate in it and feel a sense of ownership. No one accompanies us on our tours: the government treats us like just another Hungarian orchestra. Which is all very well, and we are extremely grateful for the support, but it simply cannot be compared with the kind of support that our competitors in this elite group enjoy.
Unless I’m mistaken, government support accounts for roughly 2.2 billion HUF of the annual 4 billion HUF revenue.
But let’s juxtapose that with the support the Berlin Philharmonic receives..
Please share if you know it off the top of your head.
Of course, about 20 million EUR.
Or roughly 8 billion HUF.
Yes. Most of these orchestras receive about three to four times as much as we do.
And is this amount contractually guaranteed until the end of 2024?
Yes, that's when our current agreement expires. There is a lot of debate around this and it has nothing to do with politics. Regardless of who is or was in power, we have always had disagreements with our financiers. Right now we’re arguing about the fact that the support isn’t adjusted for inflation, and I am adamant that the salary of our musicians should rise in line with inflation. Otherwise we might lose the best people and it would be impossible to stay competitive at the international forefront. But we have hit a wall and our arguments go unheard. All I asked in my last communication was that the amount of support should match the level of inflation, after which I was informed of the decision that it wouldn’t.
But do you have stability in the sense that the support will continue in the future, i.e. from 2025 onwards?
We receive an annual notice. Stability is all fine and dandy. The issue is competitiveness. We can no longer fulfil invitations from the US because the cost is prohibitive.
Ever since the start of the Russian-Ukrainian war there have been many debates in the world of music, for instance the Netrebko scandal, about whether it is ethical to invite Russian artists or singers to perform. What is your opinion on this? To what extent can we separate artistic standards from a political situation or an artist’s position on it?
I’m not happy that some of my colleagues are being forced to take a stance. If someone supports an atrocious regime, or serves them in an opportunistic way, that is obviously horrible. For instance, there were artists that served Nazi Germany; they stayed and participated in the propaganda. That is clearly reprehensible. However, there are apolitical artists that don’t concern themselves with anything other than music. To force them, simply because they were born Russian, to distance themselves from Russian leadership – I really don’t like that.
Sometimes they are not able to do so because they are in a situation of dependence, or they fear for their families. Some who lead orchestras would jeopardize the existence of the orchestra with their criticism. In summary, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask artists such coercive questions. I feel really sad about this horrible war and I deeply condemn it, but I don’t think we should exclude the entire Russian culture or the entire Russian population from among our favorites because of it. I still love the music of Tchaikovsky.
And at the last BFO-Müpa Budapest marathon you played Prokofiev all day.
That's right, we don’t punish Russian music.
And how risky do you think it is for an artist in Hungary to speak up and criticize the government?
This is another nuanced question. It’s a bit different for everyone. We must acknowledge that some artists depend on the goodwill of the powers that be and can’t speak freely. This is nothing new, I might add. Even Mozart’s father advised him to please be cautious and avoid upsetting the Archbishop of Salzburg by openly criticizing and provoking him. It would be a stretch to call Leopold Mozart a submissive opportunist; he was just a very cautious man who advised his son to be careful about what he said. We have to acknowledge that it has always been this way.
Artists often depend on the powers that be because that’s where their support comes from, and they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, especially publicly. This is also a matter of personal preference; you can’t demand a black-and-white answer from an artist. A musician primarily wants to make music, and they might be born into societies with a more authoritarian leadership, such as this Archbishop in Salzburg. Mozart was less fortunate than Haydn, who served under a generous and liberal patron, Prince Esterházy.
Stability is all fine and dandy. The issue is competitiveness.
Would you live in Hungary right now?
I am living in Hungary, I divide my time between Berlin and Budapest. But to move home completely and permanently – to be honest, that would be a challenging step backward for me. I was nineteen years old when I moved to Austria. At that time it was like being released: new horizons opened up. I was able to study in Vienna, and from there I visited many countries. I lived in the Netherlands for a long time, then in the UK, and finally Berlin, and I have always felt like a completely international person with his own set of loyalties.
I am a very patriotic Hungarian. I love Csobánka as a local patriot, and I have these attachments, but I also love my sense of freedom and internationality; plus the fact that I feel at home in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Budapest. And I have to keep this up. So the reason I wouldn’t give up this international existence is because I got used to it and came to love it. It’s necessary in order to keep my mindset broad, to be more objective, to better understand different perspectives, and to stay informed about the world. I believe that if I moved back to Hungary permanently, my perspective would shrink.
Seeing your momentum and the innumerable ideas that drive you, the question does not feel timely at all, but do you ever think about your succession? So many people equate the Festival Orchestra with Iván Fischer. Do you ever think about what’s next?
In my opinion, whatever happens to the Festival Orchestra after me, or to anything else that is currently associated with me, is none of my business. I would go even further. Creativity is an incredibly personal thing. My way of being creative is completely different from someone else's. I definitely wouldn’t want to dictate the direction or methods of my successor because that would be curtailing their creative freedom.
If I interfere with what happens after me, I’m limiting my successor’s possibilities, so I shouldn’t interfere in this at all. If I ever stop doing this, it should fall to the people in this building to figure out something smart.
Interviewer: Emese Fekete Photos: Zoltán Krasznai