Budapest Festival Orchestra founder Ivan Fischer on the ensemble's love of song

The orchestra will present Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) semi-staged at the Royal Festival Hall this May

When the Budapest Festival Orchestra comes to town, I drop everything and run to hear it. Its players’ springy, flexible musicianship and red-hot intensity mingle to inspiring effect – and this May it will present Mozart’s opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) semi-staged at the Royal Festival Hall. I’ve just been to the orchestra’s rehearsal studio, a converted cinema in a quiet Budapest suburb, to ask its founder and music director, Ivan Fischer, how its special marvels are made. 

Fischer, 65, is a ferociously intelligent and sometimes impish personality, in possession of a quality that is rarer among conductors than you might expect: genuine creativity. His imagination seems turbo-charged. He composes – “I would never consider myself a composer,” he insists, though he’s writing his third opera – and is constantly seeking new ways to format concerts. He credits the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt, with whom he studied, and who died a few weeks ago, as his most vital inspiration: “He was an eye-opening teacher – he had a wonderfully critical mind,” Fischer remembers. “He never took anything for granted. He would say that we must question tradition, because tradition is not the main thing; discovery is.” 

One effect of Fischer’s creative drive seems to be the BFO’s flourishing popularity. “When we first started in 1983, we played every concert programme once,” he says. “Now each sells out three times. It’s not as if we are breaking our heads to think how to attract audiences. Ideas pop up because they fascinate me – and somehow this attracts the new generation and new audiences. It works automatically.”

A few years ago the BFO, visiting London, presented a late-night Prom, asking the audience to vote for the pieces they wanted to hear. Another time, they performed Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony grouped around an onstage tree. And when I arrive Fischer’s office is full of schoolchildren who had come in to listen to the rehearsal; the maestro is sitting on his desk, answering their questions. “We do this at every rehearsal,” he says – it’s just one of the orchestra’s numerous initiatives for young people, which range from performing children’s operas in schools to holding a music-based film-making competition for teenagers. “One can really get in touch with the community,” Fischer says, “something for which I feel a lot of responsibility.” 

Recent developments, he adds, include a midnight series, much loved by students; and the orchestra occasionally performs 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 dark times in the country’s troubled history. “I’m a passionate European,” Fischer says, “because I think the idea that this continent, where countries finally found peace with each other, should become an integrated family is far more important than small considerations that keep nations separate. For 70 years we didn’t have to turn against one another, and that’s a wonderful gift.” 

Now Die Zauberflöte is being semi-staged under Fischer’s own direction. “I’ve been working on the idea of organic, integrated opera performance, because I think the usual system of visual innovation by directors with acoustic conservatism from conductors has become a little boring,” he declares. “We’ve had it for 40 years and some great things happened. But I’m looking for new ways to present operas and I’m specifically interested in this organic unity – instead of polarising music and stage, bringing them together.” 

Fischer’s love for Die Zauberflöte goes back to when he sang one of its three boy treble roles, aged 13, at the Hungarian State Opera. Growing up in Budapest, he and his peers – including his brother, the conductor Adam Fischer – benefited from the country’s unique approach to music education, based on childhood singing for all and pioneered by the composer Zoltan Kodaly; even today the BFO often sings an encore rather than playing one. 

That training is a vital part of the Hungarian musical tradition, but so is the melting-pot nature of the country itself. “Budapest is at the crossroads,” says Fischer. “Vienna is very near, so there’s a lot of Viennese influence; Mahler himself worked here. The Balkans are relatively close, with wonderful rhythm and folklore traditions, and there is a high level of Gypsy musicians, who brought temperament and virtuosity. Even Russia is not far away – many Hungarian violinists had Russian teachers.”

The BFO, he says, is around 90 per cent Hungarian, though by no means closed to other nationalities. A distinctive style was part of its original ethos, he adds, countering the one-sound-fits-all nature of many international orchestras; still, it is not unity of nation, but unity of thought that really counts: “Everyone in the orchestra thinks first about the meaning of the music, rather than superficial and technical aspects.”

And the ultimate unifying force is Fischer himself. “I feel close to the heritage of Leonard Bernstein, whom I admired because of his complex activities – conductor, composer, educator, pianist,” he says. “For me this is more interesting as a lifestyle. If I would only conduct symphony orchestras, going from one to the next, I think I would be a bit bored.” 

Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra perform ‘Die Zauberflöte’ at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 10 May (0207 960 4200)

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