Interview: Iván Fischer

First published by BBC Music Magazine, November 2019

When Ivan Fischer conducted Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in New York a couple of years ago, a flashmob of local students stormed the stage. They took up positions around the orchestra and joined in the last movement. A similar thing happened during performances of Beethoven’s Ninth, except this time it was an undercover chorus that sprang up from among the audience. “It’s the true meaning of these symphonies,” Fischer smiles, recalling the reactions. “The energy of the crowd, the euphoria. In conventional concerts it’s hard to achieve because these symphonies have become a bit predictable. But a hundred students storming the stage? A tenor or a soprano popping up beside you and starting to sing? The audience thinks, “it might be me!”, and that makes a collective buzz, and that is not predictable.”

The conductor makes his points precisely, playfully, without hurry. He’s a spry 68, sipping an espresso and ruffling the ears of a fat labrador that wont leave his side for the duration of the interview. I’ve come to Fischer’s house in south-west Berlin, where the ground floor features a harpsichord and a Bosendorfer grand (on the music stand: Mozart piano sonatas and the jazz standard Real Book) and up several flights is a Japanese-style meditation room with low lights and a shoes-off policy. Today it’s hot, and Fischer ushers me into the leafy garden where a trio of pet tortoises called Hector, Daphne and Pandora roam the foliage. Berlin is one half of Fischer. It’s where he raises his young children with his wife, the flutist Gabriella Pivon, and where he’s music director of the city’s Konzerthaus. The other half of him happens in his home town of Budapest, where he remains music director of the remarkable ensemble he co-founded 36 years ago. He doesn’t do much guest conducting nowadays, preferring to focus his energies on long relationships with musicians who ‘get’ the way he works: more on that to come.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra is Fischer’s petri dish. Stage invasions and choral popups are commonplace in this orchestral laboratory. Concerts routinely involve rogue spacing, placing and personnel. A rank-and-file horn player might find herself standing front of stage during a symphony, emphasising some usually-ignored inner line. The audience might end up on beanbags beside the players’ feet for true surround-sound. The whole orchestra might sing an encore rather than play it. The experiments are fun and freeing, and they keep musicians and listeners alert.


For the full interview, see BBC Music Magazine November 2019 edition