Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Spring in Winter: Haydn and Stravinsky (and a bit of Brahms) with the Budapest Festival Orchestra

An orchestra musician is an artist, not an employee, and artists must be given the chance to take initiatives and to be creative. Only an orchestra of true artists - making music as a highly disciplined team - is able to realize the dreams of the composers and pass on an uplifting experience to the audience, touching all listeners deep in their heart. This is our aim for which the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been created.  -- Iván Fischer
Having read a rave review from Likely Impossibilities and warm praise both for the orchestra in performance and the vision of their conductor, Iván Fischer, from Jessica Duchen, I went into Tuesday's concert of the BFO with high expectations.  Not only was I not disappointed... I was astonished.  I was transported.  I was delighted!  And the rest of the audience in the far-from-full hall seemed to feel the same way.  The above words from Fischer, by the way, are taken from the orchestra's website.

The first half of the program was dedicated to Haydn, a composer who, at least in my limited experience, seems fairly seldom programmed for a composer of his unimpeachable orthodoxy.  Although I usually feel that the poor man suffers badly in comparison with Mozart (who doesn't?) the BFO gave his Symphony no. 102 with verve and commitment.  Even in the dry Avery Fisher Hall, their strings have an incredible sound: shimmery on top, with a delicious dark body.  The Largo-Allegro-Vivace transitions of the first movement were handled seamlessly, followed by an adagio of real sweetness.  The third movement was graceful, the last exuberant.  Fischer's leading of the symphony gave it a Beethovenian sense of Lebensfreude, if without the harmonic surprises of the later composer.

Pianist Alexei Lubimov joined the orchestra for Haydn's piano concerto in D major; the romantic fullness of the Steinway threw me a little at first, but that soon ceased to be a distraction, as Lubimov's clean, energetic style worked in excellent partnership with the rest of the orchestra.  It's a piece with which I was unfamiliar (though it's on YouTube,) but it flashed and sparkled along, and had the audience in a fervor by the end.  There was clapping; there was shouting; I heard some undignified whooping of delight.  The perfect-coif-and-couture lady on my left smiled at me, and a number of elderly gentlemen stamped their feet on the floor to reinforce their approbation.  Fischer and Lubimov grinned and laughed and shook each other by both hands.  It was a bit like finding oneself inside one of those magical mood-transformation scenes from a 1950s musical, except with better music.

And then we went and got little plastic cups of water and came back to hear Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.  Sheer, glorious madness.  Really Shameful Confession: my emotional response to this piece has always been shaped (warped?) by this having been my first exposure to it.  When you are five or so, volcanoes and dinosaurs are scary, and not at all associated with spring.  Despite having heard a number of recordings since, I'd never really shaken my first, alarmed impression.  This performance, then, set me properly on track.  The murderously difficult music seemed to hold no terrors for the well-coordinated ensemble.  Fischer almost looked as though he were throwing punches that called forth crashes of percussion and brass, while the strings, in response to his cues, achieved unbelievably subtle pianissimi, and looked as though they were thoroughly enjoying themselves even when called upon to do no more than tap their bows against the boards and strings of their instruments.  Even without dancers, the surging, whirling energy of the piece was deliciously evocative. Woodwinds and strings, especially, brought out a real sense of joy and excitement in new growth.  Stravinsky's splendid anarchy was brilliantly realized.

The audience loved it.  I'm not quite sure whether about half of us pressured the other into standing up, or whether the demographic in attendance just took a little while to get to its feet.  But standing we soon were, and shouting and cheering lustily.  Fischer singled out each group of his musicians in turn, and we cheered, and called Fischer back again and again, with the orchestra joining us to encourage him to take bows, not only tapping with their bows but stamping with their feet (the concertmaster in truly fabulous heels.)  By the third or fourth time (I lost count) Fischer sighed, and almost threw up his hands in mock-exasperation.  But then he climbed to the podium, and turned to the meekly subsiding audience.  "What do you want to hear?"  Laughter.  I couldn't hear all of the subsequent repartee (alas) although I did make out a few shouts of "Korngold!" from the audience.  What they gave us was Brahms' 21st Hungarian Dance.  Having clapped, stamped, stood, shouted, and cheered, I felt that really, the only thing left to do would be dance... a little bit of stamping, whirling, and possibly the Hungarian equivalent of "Juchhei!" would not have seemed out of place.  But, somehow, we all stayed in our seats before giving them one last warm round of applause, and leaving in a good humor that the icy streets of Manhattan could not depress.

Postscript: they are coming back.  Lincoln Center's website still links to last year's Mostly Mozart festival, but in this year's, the BFO will be doing--drumroll and fanfare, please--Don Giovanni.  In October, they'll be at Carnegie Hall with András Schiff as soloist (!) for Bartók's piano concerti, and some Schubert thrown in.  Two nights.  You heard it here first.


  1. OMG, the Don Giovanni sounds amazing. Is it going to be staged?

    But I have to object to calling Haydn orthodox. Haydn is canonical, but he was anything but orthodox, and that's why he's canonical. Everything is different, everything is surprising, and the people who make models of the Classical Style are terrified of him. He IS underprogrammed, though.

    Also, the Ninth is considerably more than some Schubert. That is a metric ton of Schubert.

  2. Re: Don Giovanni, I KNOW! I am so excited! But I do not know whether it will be staged; I haven't seen any summer announcements around here yet, and I've poked around on the orchestra's website but haven't found further details there either (I might be missing something.)

    I am glad that Haydn terrifies makers of models! Good for him. The distinction between orthodox and canonical is a good one. (I'm going to blame my immersion in medieval history for the fact that I tend to think of them as near-synonymous even when they shouldn't be.) Will change that as soon as I think of a rephrase.

    It is also true that eine ganze Menge Schubert might be better than etwas Schubert here.

  3. Oooh, this sounds so amazing! I love a good symphony performance. And I'm definitely with you on Fantasia ruining "The Rite of Spring"; it scared the pants off me as a child. And I still can't hear the second movement of Beethoven's Sixth without picturing lovelorn centaurs. :/

    Here's hoping the BFO gets over to my neck of the woods sometime soon.

  4. I'm glad I'm not the only one with Stravinsky/Disney trauma, Christie! The Beethoven 6 segment also made a strong impression... but I liked the centaurs at the time, and liked Beethoven anyway. LvB succeeded in taking over my mental images for that... now I just picture Ludwig strolling through German woods experiencing "Pleasant Feelings Upon Arriving in the Country."

    Also, here's a link to the BFO's schedule:

  5. How about the Boccanegra? Have you seen it?

  6. Wow, that sounds like a wild evening. Stomping ovations are the best kind.

    (A propos of nothing, gotta tell you I too started getting questions "Are you a performer?" I remembered your post the other day when I was asked.)

  7. @asperias: I promise I will review the Boccanegra as soon as I see it. There have been unexpected scheduling issues.

    @DTO It was wild. Here's to more performances worthy of stomping ovations! Thank you for sharing... here's to raising awareness of well-informed amateurs, too.

  8. Hee, the meaning of convention and orthodoxy in Classical era music is a perpetual essay question on exams. It's a complicated issue.

    When I saw the BFO in Vienna we didn't get anything like stomping until the encore, and I think then it was because they played a Strauß II galopp. LOL at "Korngold."


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