Although most of the world’s great orchestras boast long, venerable histories, Hungary’s Budapest Festival Orchestra is a notably youthful exception. The ensemble, which Gramophone magazine placed at No. 9 in a recent ranking of the world’s top 20 symphony orchestras, was co-founded a mere 34 years ago by music director Iván Fischer and pianist-conductor Zoltán Kocsis.
“When the Budapest Festival Orchestra comes to town, I drop everything and run to hear it,” music critic Jessica Duchen wrote in March in London’s Independent. “Its players’ springy, flexible musicianship and red-hot intensity mingle to inspiring effect.”
The acclaimed ensemble, with Fischer on the podium, will make just its second-ever appearance in Orchestra Hall on Feb. 8 as part of the SCP Orchestra Series. It will offer an all-Beethoven program spotlighting the composer’s Symphonies Nos. 1 and 5 and Piano Concerto No. 2. “Even after many concerts,” Fischer said via e-mail, “I am fascinated by Beethoven’s symphonies, I find new hidden treasures in them every time. When I spend a few weeks with Beethoven, his music makes a huge impact on me, I feel like becoming a different person. He was exceptional: a huge talent, wild, unpredictable, who wanted and managed to change the world — for the better.”
Serving as soloist will be esteemed American pianist Richard Goode, a frequent collaborator with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. In 2009, they released on Nonesuch a complete recording of Beethoven’s piano concertos, which received a prestigious Gramophone Record of the Year nomination. “Richard takes Beethoven very seriously: he thinks, reads, searches and finds beautiful details,” Fischer said. “He is a modest artist for whom the music and the composer always come first. The result is beautiful and genuine. It is a great privilege to make music with an artist of his caliber.”
In 1983, when Fischer, who turns 66 on Jan. 20, and Kocsis (who died in November) formed the BFO, they sought to break out of the conventional symphony orchestra mold. Instead, the two envisioned a nimble, free-wheeling ensemble, in which members were given more say and more time and freedom to pursue other musical pursuits. “I had a different kind of orchestra in mind than the usual symphony orchestra: an ensemble where everybody plays with a chamber music-like attitude, with full, personal involvement and creativity,” Fischer said. “I believed that the orchestra literature needs as much freedom of expression as solo or chamber repertoire and that would need a different conductor-orchestra relationship.”
Always eager to experiment, Fischer has constantly sought to expand the orchestra’s programming and try new things like having audiences vote for the works they want to hear or having musicians sing encores rather than playing them instrumentally. Other projects include Community Weeks, in which the orchestra performs free concerts in churches, child-care centers and unused synagogues, and Dancing on the Square, which, among things, promotes community involvement and civic awareness. “Fischer is a ferociously intelligent and sometimes impish personality,” Duchen wrote, “in possession of a quality that is rarer among conductors than you might expect: genuine creativity. His imagination seems turbo-charged.”
The orchestra’s success, though, has not come without struggles. Fischer has had his run-ins with Hungary’s right-wing government, and last year, the orchestra’s city subsidy was slashed 80 percent — a move that was countered with a large public protest in central Budapest that included a performance of an aria from “The Magic Flute.” “Like all European orchestras, we receive grants and, luckily, the major part [that of the state] were not cut,” he said. “The city of Budapest did cut our grant, which was a budget loss of approximately 8 percent. We had to cut a few concerts, but not many.”
Touring, which helps to bolster the orchestra’s bottom line, has long been an essential part of its activities. The orchestra goes on the road some seven times a year for 30-40 concerts away from Hungary. “Touring is good for everybody,” Fischer said. “The audiences experience a different kind of music-making, and touring helps the cohesion, the family feel of the orchestra members. Besides, international cultural exchange is important, especially now, when there is a danger of nations turning inward rather than opening up.”
Fischer believes that traditional symphony orchestras are doomed if they don’t become less rigid. First of all, repertoire has to widen. Orchestras need to not just master period instruments and play more contemporary music, including smaller ensemble works, but they also must embrace folk, world and improvised music. For this to occur, he said, orchestras need to rethink their fixed rosters and audition processes. “The orchestra of the future will be a production company offering a large range of musical activities to a community,” he said. “There are good developments like outreach and educational work, but this is not enough. To survive an orchestra needs to adapt to our time, be able to change and find new solutions.”
In short, he thinks that other ensembles are going to have to become a lot more like the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “The original ideas have been unchanged for over 30 years,” he said. “The methods have developed a lot. Now we have a model of a very innovative symphony orchestra. The Budapest Festival Orchestra is often mentioned as a flagship for the orchestra of the future, and I think it is right to look at it like that.”
After all, as Gramophone magazine’s experts have determined, the Hungarian ensemble went from birth to a Top 10 international ranking in just a few decades. Fischer must be doing something right.
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.