The orchestra assembles, strings downstage; winds, brass, and percussion fill the rear of the stage. The conductor mounts the podium and another concert begins. But when the ensemble is the Budapest Festival Orchestra and the conductor is its founder and spirit guide, Iván Fischer, there are sure to be delightful departures from that tried-and-true scenario. Widely hailed as a "consummate showman" (The Independent) who combines a puckish sense of humor with probing musical curiosity, Fischer rarely adheres to the canon law of concert performance. We can't say for sure what he will do when he takes the stage of David Geffen Hall on February 5 and 6 for two all-Beethoven concerts, but it is safe to say that, with this "intoxicating conductor-orchestra team" (The Guardian), there will be surprises.
"Iván Fischer's creativity in many dimensions is what sets him apart from most other conductors," says Ehrenkranz Artistic Director Jane Moss. "His theatrical imagination in particular takes the concert experience out of the 'old' and the 'ordinary' and into the realm of the new and uniquely alive. It is that freshness and aliveness that audiences respond to, as well as to his unmatched musical virtuosity and vision."
Says pianist Richard Goode, who will perform Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto on the first program: "Fischer is one of the most inspiring and original musicians I know, and his Budapest Festival Orchestra is unique in its energy and brio. I am looking forward with enormous pleasure to working with them again, and to making new discoveries about the Beethoven concertos."
And how does the maestro himself explain his approach? In a recent e-mail exchange, Fischer discussed his philosophy of music making and preparation for these concerts.
Madeline Rogers: Beethoven's works are so familiar. How do you approach them to achieve performances critics call "fresh," "vivid," and "joyous"?
Iván Fischer: We have to make sure that they are experienced as if they were being heard for the first time ever. The trick is to listen to the harmonies and the chord progressions, and then it becomes very clear what the original ideas are. I try to bring out the passion of every orchestra. My method is to draw the attention of the players to the meaning of what they play. The danger for any instrumentalist is to put too much focus on technicalities—sound, precision, and playing perfectly together with your partners. I think playing all the notes correctly and in the right time is only half the job. The other half is far more enjoyable: to identify and convey the meaning and emotional message of a composition.
MR: Your first program features works which start in surprising ways: The First Symphony seems to begin in the middle; the Piano Concerto No. 4 opens with a contemplative piano solo instead of the usual orchestral riff; and the Fifth Symphony starts with music's most famous four notes. Can you comment on these opening bars and how these pieces relate to one another?
IF: Beethoven's starts are not conventional; they represent his basic character: He likes to show us something new from the first note. He was an innovator who was drawn to original ideas. But the Fifth Symphony is much more than the well-known opening of the first movement. The second movement, especially, offers a very deep, intimate lyricism, which is also the strongest characteristic of the piano concerto. In addition to being highly dramatic, Beethoven can be extremely tender, too.
MR: Your second program ends with the Ninth Symphony. Often performed on its own, you have paired it with the Eighth. How do these works "talk" to each other?
IF: In both symphonies, the timpani is tuned in octaves; this seems a minor point but it is a typical Beethoven innovation, like a trademark. Otherwise, the two works present an enormous contrast: The Eighth contains hundreds of unconventional ideas, but nevertheless, in form, it is a symphony in the old sense. The Ninth wants to step out of that frame and change the world. It was a major revolution.
MR: In your last performance of the Ninth at Lincoln Center in 2010, you made surprising staging decisions: You placed the chorus on the floor in front of the stage, and positioned the vocal quartet members in the orchestra, paired with solo instruments. Can you explain that unconventional approach?
IF: As for the chorus, it represents the whole society, so there should be no separation of performers and listeners; the feeling should not be "us" in the audience and "them" on stage. I hope I will find a way to make it work spatially. As for the placement of instruments, one should always look at the intention of the composer. For example, the timpani has a central function in the Ninth and I am not at all sure that it is best realized from the conventional placing of that instrument. Also, the Turkish band in the final movement is one group and I see no reason to have the piccolo player sitting next to the flutes waiting almost an hour before playing. So I place the piccolo with the Turkish band that joins in for the finale.
MR: When you last did your 2010 Beethoven cycle at Lincoln Center in 2010, there were many tears and cheers from the seats at the end. Say a few words about performing for the Lincoln Center audience, which has such affection for you.
IF: To perform in New York is a great honor and much fun. I can sense that many people care about music. I guess it works in both directions: if an orchestra is deeply involved, it can radiate that feeling to the public. And if the public loves the music and appreciates whatever we are offering, it can have an electrifying effect on the performers. This usually happens at Lincoln Center.
Madeline Rogers is a creative consultant to nonprofits and former Director of Publications at the New York Philharmonic.