A conductor without vanity – is that possible? Hardly. But Iván Fischer comes close. He turns his back on the established rules of the classical music business – and reinvents the orchestra.
A perfectly normal orchestra? That was not what he wanted. Ever. In fact, the young Iván Fischer found the notion radically impossible, was already fed up with his international career almost before it had begun. Aloof, austere and proud was how he came across to the established orchestras – worse even, they thought him listless and officious. And so he formed an orchestra of his own. Nearly 35 years later, the Budapest Festival Orchestra counts among the best in the world – a small miracle. But now we are meeting at the Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin, amid all the aloof, austere and proud pomp of Prussian architecture. Fischer has also been working here for the past five years, as Chief Conductor of the Konzerthaus Orchestra in Berlin. This gentle, headstrong, brilliant Hungarian has a keen sense of humor and twinkling eyes that speak volumes. But there’s a mischievous twinkle in his voice, too, that wonderful Hungarian singsong that’s music in itself. Fischer, 66, is courteous, our conversation is lively, but you can sense that he would rather be doing something else. Music, for instance. Or swimming in Krumme Lanke lake.
Mr. Fischer, Listening to you, it sometimes sounds as though you don’t particularly enjoy your work …
I put up with the job for the music. There are people who actually want to become conductors. I find them suspect.
So why do you do it to yourself?
If the music works out, it’s worthwhile. Then I would say it was a good job.
There’s so much else that goes with it. Being in the spotlight, all the hotels, the business side of things … and more than anything, the role of powerful conductor, which I find repugnant rather than attractive.
But you do need that power; you have 100 musicians to meld into a single entity.
There has to be uniformity in the way an orchestra plays, of course. There can be no individual go-it-alone sabotage…(he laughs). But still, everything must come from within the musician, from his or her emotions. I think this is a very interesting paradox.
How do you solve it?
By not expecting subordination from the musicians, but by convincing them. That is the best way. It takes 100 percent trust to achieve complete unity that comes from the soul.
Is it possible to be creative as a collective? Fischer ponders the question. It’s often this way: Almost as soon as a musician has secured a place in an orchestra, he finds his ideas are no longer required – from then on he plays only the way others tell him to. This dulls the spirit, and the musician’s playing becomes mechanical. That’s why Fischer’s Budapest orchestra – he calls it his “laboratory” – has no employees. The musicians spend as much time as they wish there and are also take on project responsibility, but otherwise they pursue their own interests. They become entrepreneurs, and that’s why they remain free spirits – so that the next time around, as they say in musician speak, they are back “on the edge of their seat.”
Fischer doesn’t disappear into his conductor’s room when a rehearsal is over, either. He mingles with the musicians, chats with them, listens to their suggestions. If something works, they take it up. Fischer doesn’t need to set himself up as a magically inspired baton wielder, he is the diametric opposite of an auratic despot on the conductor’s stand. The fact that he sees himself primarily as a musician, not a conductor, earns him the necessary respect in another way.
Fischer spent his childhood right on Andrássy út, Budapest’s famous boulevard, diagonally across from the opera house. He learned piano, violin and cello. Conducting was not a part of his plan, it just came easily to him, and so he rather half-heartedly took part in a prestigious contest in 1976 – and won. His comment: “Someone probably noticed that the boy could also conduct quite well.”
And so his course was set. The world’s major orchestras and opera houses hired him. He worked in Amsterdam, New York and Paris. But Fischer was dissatisfied, bored even. He didn’t like the life of the conductor jet set, and so he remained an eternal insider tip even though he had long joined the ranks of the big names of his profession. Fischer calls this “negative marketing.” He does it with intent.
You almost became a world star …
Many people think there can be no greater aspiration for conductors than to wave their hands around in front of a first-rate orchestra. That does not motivate me at all. I would like to invent the orchestra of the future. And most importantly, I don’t want to repeat myself. That would be dreadful.
Doesn’t routine creep in anyway?
Yes, that happens. Then I leave.
But no matter where you go, it’s always the same music that’s played, music that’s more than 100 years old …
You have to give people the music they need. When Mozart and Brahms were alive, people were only interested in new music, today they fetishize old music like a god. It’s crazy really – and completely illogical. But I think it’s just a short-lived wave.
When Fisher conducts, you have to be prepared for surprises. The musicians will sit somewhere else, singers in the middle of the audience or the audience in the middle of the orchestra. Sometimes the audience decides what the orchestra will play. Or there will be a tree on stage. There are midnight concerts, flash mobs beneath the open sky, performances for autistic children, cocoa concerts with hot chocolate. After the show, musicians and audience come together to chat. Fischer’s minor cultural revolutions are not always a success, but the main thing is, after all, to avoid routine.
Politically, too, Fischer doesn’t take things lying down. He regularly locks horns with the authoritarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. A prime object for Fischer, whose grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, is to combat the reemergence of Jew hatred – also as a composer. His opera The Red Heifer recalls the anti-Semitic rampages that took place in Hungary in the 1880s, however the present association of the work is more than self-evident. Budapest’s Lord Mayor István Tarlós recently let rip, saying: “Iván Fischer is beginning to lose his self-control,” and promptly slashed the orchestra’s funding. Spontaneous protest concerts on the streets of Budapest were the response.
Fischer’s restlessness is gloriously self-contradictory: Mischief and gravity, tradition and iconoclasm come together easily. In the core competencies of ability, diligence and discipline, he remains strictly old-fashioned, but when it’s a question of orchestral routine, of mediocrity, cozy security or false pathos, Iván Fischer soon becomes an anarchist. He loathes concerts that are mere social occasions devoid of artistic risk.
That’s why even back in the 1970s, when he was moving from one orchestra to the next, Fischer jotted down his ideas for reform. Later he published a blog, “92 thoughts for young conductors.” One of those thoughts is that a good conductor renders himself superfluous; another that dead composers have no feelings. Why 92? “I didn’t think of a 93rd!”
You will be leaving the Berlin Konzerthaus again in the summer of 2018. How would you sum up your time there?
What I discovered was that you can also achieve beautiful things within these limitations. It’s fun. And it’s good that I don’t just live on my island of wonders, but keep in touch with the real world.
Fun seems to be important to you …
It’s the most important thing. If you only want to impress, if you are stressed or anxious, you cannot make good music. You can only do that if you are really relaxed and can surrender to the joy of playing.
What does that mean, “making good music”?
Good is what reaches people. If you read a children’s book out loud, what are you aiming for? For the child to experience something! It’s not about what I think of the book or how I interpret the book. At a concert, the people are like the small child, and I am reading the story. If it touches them, then it’s good.
And if it doesn’t? Can you tell?
You can see it in their eyes. And of course, there are people who will be staring at their cell phones and reading emails. I don’t think it’s a problem. I would allow all of that. You don’t have to force people to focus, you simply have to try to create moments so beautiful that they will look up from their phone and say: “Wow, that’s wonderful!”
It all sounds so easy …
Conducting is a very easy job. I don’t understand why people think it’s difficult. Of course, I sometimes see conductors who are totally stressed out and sweating … That amuses me. And then, yes, then I do feel some sympathy. But only a bit.
Stravinsky – Le Sacre du Printemps (2012): “Even now, 100 years on, the shocking sacrificial rite is at once spine-chilling and stunningly beautiful.“
Mahler – Symphony No. 4 (2009): “This is more of a childlike symphony: naive, paradisiacal sounds rather than gloomy tubas and weighty trombones”
Composer’s Portrait – works by Iván Fischer (2016): “ I consider eclecticism to be the most modern musical language of our time.”