EIF: BFO / Fischer 1&2

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is not the only orchestra in the world to recognise that survival requires significant change. The key, of course, is how orchestras change. Some flirt with educational projects, others with the general staidness of traditional symphonic presentation, while others tinker in order to address funding whims. But few take the bull completely by the horns, rip up the rule book and think way out the box, as the BFO has done for decades under the radical leadership of its conductor Iván Fischer. A demo, effectively, on what it’s all about opened their residency at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Only the arthritic will have baulked at the beanbags littering the Usher Hall stalls, which turned out to be the best seats in the house for the purpose of Tuesday’s two related concerts. If there was a main gig, it was the later one, a performance of Dvorak’s Symphony No 8 in which we beanbaggers could choose a position amidst or around the orchestra. It was itself scattered with Fischer standing centrally to conduct and compere simultaneously.

This approach, he said, is as much for the audience’s benefit as the players’. And sure enough, as observers we sensed immediately the electricity that sparked between sections or vying soloists, while the players, shooting winks and glances at some of us, seemed to revel in the closer contact. Near the start, Fischer stopped and sought our feedback. Faster or slower? Broody or brio? What do you reckon? He then proceeded to illustrate the consequences of the options. In his hands, interpretation is an open book, changeable at a whim.

Ultimately this Dvorak 8 was fascinating because it wasn’t a straight performance. There were several stops en route, Fischer asking the clarinets to think again about their melancholic response to a blissful statement by the flutes. “Imagine you are miserable street beggars,” he suggested. They duly obliged. If this was a snapshot of the orchestra’s regular demeanour, it must be fun to be a concertgoer in Budapest.

Importantly it was not a gimmick. Having seen the BFO rehearse and perform in other locations – recently in Mahler at the Royal Festival Hall – there is no question that the spontaneity of the preparation process feeds powerfully into the moment of delivery. While this presentation resembled something between an open rehearsal and a masterclass, it had a serious purpose, which was to say to us that we are all intrinsic to the concert experience.  

For the earlier event, A Model For The Future, Fischer took centre stage with Festival Director Nicola Benedetti to discuss the wider policies of his orchestra, and his long-held belief that reform is critical in ensuring the long-term survival of the species. His own model has been that exposed by Pierre Boulez, which is to regard the orchestra as a pool of musicians who can either appear en masse or in various smaller contingents that reflect their particular enthusiasm. 

Cue a bristling early music troupe, complete with sparkling recorder player, joined by a choir populated by others from the orchestra, which performed Monteverdi madrigals with stylish elan. Other integral ensembles took their turn: a steamy Argentine tango ensemble, a gritty Klezmer ensemble and a red hot traditional trio ramping up the momentum to a final of Romanian folk dance

Ken Walton