Classical music can be the flagship of understanding and tolerance

Hungarian conductor Iván Fischer is the rarest of classical musicians, known just as much for his fearless political activism offstage as the inspirational performances he gives in concert halls.

Case in point: A tour of the United States with his Budapest Festival Orchestra early last year that was threatened when the new Trump administration issued the first of many travel bans. It would have forced a BFO cellist who holds dual citizenship in Iraq to stay behind. While no musician is irreplaceable, the ban struck a raw nerve with Fischer, who told The New York Times, “I will never allow anybody to single out a musician in my orchestra and disadvantage that person because of their origin, skin color, religion or any other factor.”

So Fischer got on the phone to the US State Department and accomplished a small miracle. “I was lucky because in those days there was a lot of chaos,” he says now. “It was not clear if the ban applied to dual citizens or not. So I argued that although their letter to the consulates included dual citizens, the original presidential decree did not. Somehow it worked and our musicians of dual nationality were allowed to travel with us. Phew!”

Music fans can see Fischer and his orchestra work another kind of magic at this yearʼs Prague Spring festival. They will perform Mahlerʼs majestic Resurrection Symphony (No. 2) with a stellar supporting cast – German soprano Christiane Karg, Austrian alto Elisabeth Kulman and the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno.

Fischer has a well-deserved reputation for turning familiar pieces into something special, and this one promises to be no different. “This work is not a usual symphony,” he says. “It is a festive, exceptional composition in which Mahler offers us an uplifting, visionary experience beyond music. The only similar work is Beethovenʼs Ninth. These works are more philosophical masterpieces than symphonies.”

Philosophy has played an important role in Fischerʼs entire life and career, starting with the loss of his maternal grandparents in the concentration camps. This is the foundation of his outspoken opposition to any type of nationalism, particularly in Hungary, where he has defied the anti-immigrant policies and anti-Semitic rhetoric of  Prime Minister Viktor Orban by, for example, giving concerts with the BFO in abandoned synagogues.

“My grandparents were killed and it left a strong responsibility in me,” Fischer says. “If I see radical nationalists rising I must speak out to warn people: It must not happen again.”

Strong convictions have also shaped Fischerʼs musical life, starting with his rejection of the standard conducting model, traveling the world on a hit-and-run schedule to lead as many orchestras as possible.  “I was very concerned about the mechanical, boring performances I heard from many orchestras, which seemed lifeless to me,” he says. Fischer is not opposed to traveling – he has held lengthy guest conducting positions in the US and the UK. But for his own ensemble, he had a different vision: “I was dreaming of an orchestra in which everybody plays as chamber musicians, with more give-and-take, more creativity and involvement.”

This collaborative approach is what gives the BFO its distinctive sound. It also shapes the orchestraʼs programming and performances. In Budapest the schedule is designed to attract a wider and younger audience, offering concerts at unusual times and venues, and free performances outdoors. Audience members have been invited to sit among the players during the performance, or help decide the program by picking pieces written on slips of paper out of a tuba.

The BFO does not leave this egalitarian spirit behind when it goes on the road. At Lincoln Center in New York last year, Fischer had music students from the Juilliard School and Bard College come onstage to join the orchestra in playing Beethovenʼs Fifth Symphony, and scattered singers from the Concert Chorale of New York throughout the audience for the final movement of the Ninth. At Prague Spring in 2015, Fischer led his musicians in singing rather than playing the encore, in essence converting them to a choir.

At the moment, there are no similar surprises planned for this year. “This great symphony is already full of surprises,” Fischer says. “Maybe this is one of the reasons I feel so close to it.”

Itʼs no accident that the Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno will be accompanying the orchestra in Prague as well as four other cities on its European tour next month. Fischer is an unabashed fan of the group. “I know this excellent choir well,” he says. “They sang the most beautiful performance of Dvořákʼs Requiem with us a few years ago. I will never forget it. So we have invited them regularly to Budapest and on international tours with the orchestra. I am sure that the last movement of Mahlerʼs second symphony with them will be a beautiful part of the concert.”

Smetana Hall is not always kind of visiting orchestras. The acoustics are far from ideal and particularly challenging when one is trying to balance instruments, solo vocalists and a choir. True to form, Fischer is prepared not only to deal with whatever sonic difficulties await him, but take personal responsibility for them. “One can help acoustics by adapting to each situation and playing differently,” he says. “In the short rehearsal we have in a new city we always listen to the sound of the hall and decide if we need to change the balance of strings, winds, brass, or if we need to give more bass or more high notes, and play shorter or longer according to the reverberation. I also adapt tempos to acoustics. So, no excuses – if it doesnʼt sound good, it is my fault.”

Whatever the particular piece or sound, Fischer and his orchestra bring with them a set of values that supersede the music. In their view, an orchestra offers possibilities that go far beyond providing a satisfying eveningʼs entertainment.

“Classical music can be the flagship of understanding and tolerance,” Fischer says. “If you look at most orchestras in Europe, you see many nationalities among the musicians. If you play the horn well, you can win an audition anywhere – you donʼt need to speak the local language. So we musicians are ahead of others and happy to be cosmopolitans. We have a responsibility to show people, especially those who are afraid, that life is better without borders.”


Author: Frank Kuznik