One of the leading orchestras in the world comes to Birmingham next week. Christopher Morley talks to its principal conductor.
Formed only 30 years ago, the Budapest Festival Orchestra is now one of the top three in the world, according to Esquire magazine. If you would prefer to trust the judgment of a more specialist publication, Gramophone puts the BFO in the world’s top 10.
And another specialist magazine, BBC Music, has named the orchestra’s visit to Symphony Hall on April 26 as ranking second in its 20 must-see classical events during the month.
So what is it about this phenomenon, founded by conductor Ivan Fischer and pianist Zoltan Kocsis with the aim of giving Hungary a world-class orchestra?
Perhaps it is attributable to the fact that the Budapest Festival Orchestra enjoys extended rehearsal periods, part of its ethos since its foundation. Or the fact that, alongside its active educational work, it also encompasses both a contemporary music ensemble and a Baroque Ensemble, which plays on original instruments.
Whatever the case, Ivan Fischer is still the BFO’s principal conductor, and brings a wealth of experience – chief conductor of the sadly-missed Kent Opera, principal conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, chief conductor of the Lyons Opera, and so much else – to his work in the Hungarian homeland of which he is so proud.
Does he see himself as an ambassador for his country’s culture?
“I understand my role in a broader context,” Ivan declares. “When I perform British music in Hungary, I am also an ambassador of British culture there. When we bring Bartok here to England I am an ambassador of his music. I think my role is to bring peoples closer to each other by learning other cultures.”
The BFO’s programme at Symphony Hall begins with Bartok’s spectacular Concerto for Orchestra. Ivan and his BFO have performed it countless times, but is there any danger of getting stale?
“There is no danger because the greatest masterpieces always stay fresh. This work is one of the most important ones of the 20th Century. I discover new details in it every time,” he explains.
We go on to discuss the BFO’s involvement in “period” performance. I ask Ivan how his experience in that field transfers to an orchestra playing centuries-old music on “modern” instruments.
“Playing on period instruments is only a tool,” he replied. “The purpose is to experience the work within its original context because then we understand more of its meaning.”
Equally creative, and much more close to home, is the Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, which is assuming a major role in the 35th year of what was previously known as the Ludlow Philharmonic Concerto Prize. The competition is now styled “The Birmingham Philharmonic Concerto Prize”, and brings the finalists from Birmingham Conservatoire the opportunity of performing with a prestigious symphony orchestra, when in previous years these finals were carried out with piano accompaniment.
Sunday afternoon’s concert final in the Adrian Boult Hall is conducted by BPO’s vastly-experienced Michael Lloyd, with Stephen Barlow doing the adjudicating.
Another new venture is launched at the very edge of our region, with “Brahms, neat”, a survey of all that composer’s chamber music presented at the Whittington International Chamber Music Festival, near the Welsh Borders beyond Oswestry.
The ensemble in residence is the Leondari Ensemble, and among the guest soloists are clarinettists David Campbell and Sarah Beaty. Possibly well worth a springtime visit during the first week in May.
* Budapest Festival Orchestra at Symphony Hall, April 26, 7.30pm (0121 780 3333); Birmingham Philharmonic Concerto prize at the Adrian Boult Hall, April 21 3pm (0121 245 4455); Whittington International Chamber Music Festival, May 1-9 (01691 657986).