The 2006-07 season is off to a roaring good start for conductor Iván Fischer. Having hosted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Budapest at the second annual Budapest Mahlerfest last month, Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra have released a new recording of the Austrian composer's "Resurrection" Symphony that has critics reaching for superlatives. Gramophone has already named the album its Recording of the Month in the just published 2006 Awards Issue, and Washington Post critic Tim Page has compared the recording — which was released in the U.S. on October 10 on the Channel Classics label — to the very best of yesteryear:
"Fischer's new recording of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 2 ('Resurrection') will likely come as a surprise to all but the conductor's most knowing and ardent fans. It is simply a beautiful performance — majestic but intimate, sweeping but tender, carefully planned and brilliantly executed by Fischer, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, the Hungarian Radio Choir, soprano Lisa Milne and mezzo-soprano Birgit Remmert ... This is one of the best recordings of the 'Resurrection' Symphony ever made — worthy to stand with the very different performances by Otto Klemperer and Leonard Bernstein. If Fischer can bring this sort of excitement to the Kennedy Center, he will be a most welcome addition to the music community."
Page's mention of the Kennedy Center is a reference to the fact that Fischer begins his tenure as the new Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in late November with the first of two subscription weeks he will give there this season. In addition to these concerts this fall, Fischer will also appear as a guest conductor with the famed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome and, back in the States, the Philadelphia Orchestra.
In the interview below, Iván Fischer discusses, among other things, his philosophy on creating new generations of classical music enthusiasts, some of his upcoming music programs, and his approach to conducting Mahler's music.
Q: 2006-07 is an especially big season for you here in the U.S., highlighted by the concerts you will give in Washington, D.C., in your new position as Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. Tell us about the programs you will be conducting there.
Iván Fischer: In our first concerts [November 30-December 2] we will start with a new work, Einstein's Violin, by American composer Richard Henderson. This is an important and honest gesture — a kind of tribute — to the National Symphony Orchestra and particularly Leonard Slatkin, who has pioneered so many new American works and remained so long at the forefront of American music. After that there will be a series of short European works that fill out the first half of the program. These varied works cover a colorful spectrum of music and will provide much entertainment. The second half of the concert will feature an important classical masterpiece: Brahms's Symphony No. 2. Overall, the program is designed so that there is great collective variety offering a taste of what will come in our work together.
The second week in early 2007 [February 8-11] is very specialized and linked with the Kennedy Center's Shakespeare Festival. This all-Mendelssohn program features the composer's Symphony No. 1 as well as the incidental music to Midsummer Night's Dream. Mendelssohn's First Symphony isn't well known but I think it's a wonderfully fresh composition. I think people will be convinced that it's a beautiful symphony. Midsummer Night's Dream is a very festive, dreamlike, lyrical work and this combination will form a beautiful concert.
Q: How do you feel about your new position with the National Symphony Orchestra?
IF: I have very good memories of our earlier concerts together. Now I'm very excited about the more intense partnership: for me this new position is something that I take very seriously.
Q: In Budapest and elsewhere you have put a lot of energy into music education programs targeting young children. Is this something you will be doing with the National Symphony?
IF: Yes, in February we will do something that's similar to what we do with our Cocoa Concerts for young children. We've had fantastic success with the program in Budapest and in other cities and have gained ten years of invaluable experience, which is why our method is so unique.
Q: How would you describe your approach?
IF: First of all, in the usual children's concerts, orchestras bring kids into a large hall and try to entertain them by being as funny as possible. In this setting the kids are mostly noisy and don't concentrate. Instead, we bring people into a small hall — 300 or 400 — and children come with their parents or family members instead. These are family concerts, not students brought in from a classroom situation. I want them — the children and their parents and other family members — to be together. We don't have an orchestra for these concerts: an orchestra is too complex, too complicated. Instead, we have individual members of the orchestra playing solo pieces, or small combinations of instruments. I don't conduct — I just moderate the whole thing. It's very interactive and the focus is on what they hear and how they respond. It's great fun.
Q: This all sounds very encouraging.
IF: Cultural awareness is something that a lot of people and the media talk about and are interested in. And many people and institutions are struggling to come up with effective programs because it is genuinely very difficult to bring the arts to kids. That's why we feel it's important that you make it a family experience. When an entire class from a school visits a large concert hall, there will be a few motivated students, but many children around them don't care to be there and it quickly becomes a very distracting environment. But if a student comes along with his or her family, then someone in the family is likely to be motivated. It could be the parent who thinks it's a good idea. It could be the child that thinks it's great, or a sibling. I try not to lecture the kids; I try to put myself in their shoes as five- and six-year-olds and share my feelings with them. I avoid visual entertainment. If you dress up funny or do anything else with the visuals it distracts from listening. More than anything else you have to make it personal for these students.
Q: Your new Mahler Second Symphony release follows up on a very well received recording of the composer's Symphony No. 6 and it's already getting some very enthusiastic reviews. Do you have a special approach to performing and recording this composer's music?
IF: Mahler is a very modern composer. What makes him modern is that he mixes everything: military bands, cowbells, natural sounds, Yiddish folksongs, reminiscences of Bach, German culture — just to name a few elements. It's a musical melting pot and this mixture is very extreme. Mahler was very often criticized for not having his own style because he "stole" from other sources, but this is precisely what I find so beautiful about his music. He composed the way all of us do — with the music of life whirling in our heads. We are, in fact, exposed to all kinds of styles in our minds. Mahler puts this honestly into his works — almost like psychoanalysis at the deepest level of the soul, because it allows everything. Most composers find it important to say, "This is my style," but Mahler doesn't say that. He allows his intuition to come through and that's the main thing for his music. The best way to perform it is to get on his wavelength; you have to tune your intuition as a performer into Mahler's intuition.
Q: Are there plans to record all of Mahler's symphonies?
IF: I'm not a friend of complete cycles. I choose my favorite works that I feel very strongly about. A full cycle means doing works I'm less enthusiastic about, which means you can't have a great performance. To have the chance for a great performance you have to be absolutely passionate about that particular piece. So I record only works I adore.
Q: Do you feel a certain pressure having your interpretation of such a touchstone work as Mahler's Second compared to so many other great Mahler recordings?
IF: Let me approach it from another point of view: it helps me a lot that there is so much tradition from which I can learn. And still, I feel that I've got a strong identification with Mahler's music, maybe because I came from the same part of the world. And not just the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My great-grandfather came from a similar small town in Bohemia; he was a Jewish shopkeeper like Mahler's father. Thus, our backgrounds have important similarities. Both of us had this Jewish assimilated family that stepped out of its religion but jumped at art with the same devotion. Our religious devotion got transferred into the European cultural tradition.
Q: At a time when many top conductors and orchestras aren't making recordings you have an exciting relationship with Channel Classics. Your next release for them is a rarity — Richard Strauss's Josephslegende, which the composer wrote for the great ballet impresario Diaghilev. The album is coming out in early 2007 and you'll lead the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of it in April. Is this piece just a curiosity by a major composer, or something more?
IF: This is a neglected masterpiece. It's a huge, long work of 65 minutes of uninterrupted music. It's hair-raisingly difficult for the orchestra, so many conductors shy away from doing it. But if you take time to learn it well, it opens you up to something at the highest level of beauty for Strauss's music. Compared to Zarathustra and Heldenleben, this is more lyrical and naïve because it reflects the character of the biblical Joseph, a boy who is beautiful, attractive, somewhat naïve and ingenious.
Q: You recently recorded Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. What made you decide to record this orchestral favorite now and what else will be heard on the album?
IF: We've put together a very unusual selection of works on this album: Beethoven's Seventh, an overture by Rossini, one movement of a symphony by a Dutch composer named Wilhelm Wilms, and one movement of a clarinet concerto by Weber. The thread is that they were all written in the years of Beethoven's Seventh. I wanted to show in what context this work was composed. What did people hear in the same year? If you hear Beethoven's Seventh in this context you hear it with very different ears: the contrast reveals the truly revolutionary nature of Beethoven's music.
Q: You first made a splash as a recording artist with a Bartók series for Philips Classics. Given that you are Hungarian by birth, do you feel pressure to conduct music by Hungarian composers such as Bartók and Kodály? Is this frequently the repertoire that you are asked to guest conduct?
IF: If orchestras ask me to conduct Hungarian music I usually say no. I don't want to be seen as simply a Hungarian conductor. My cultural background is more European — central European — so I conduct mainly Viennese, German and Italian music as well as Czech music and Hungarian music. It's a very international music world that I live in. Remembering this is especially important in this part of the world, where some people suffer from nationalism. So I want to be seen as a cosmopolitan conductor and a European conductor, and not just Hungarian. Bartók is a composer I greatly admire, but not because he's Hungarian. He's simply one of the great composers.
Q: You had a great success at Glyndebourne this summer conducting Mozart's Cosí fan tutte. Do you plan on setting aside more time in the future to conduct opera?
IF: Opera takes a long time and takes me away from my family for a long period. It's always a sacrifice to go into the opera house. I have to be there for the whole preparation period, working with the stage directors. I can't just appear a few days before and then disregard what happens on stage. I need to work together with a stage director. I want the visual and musical elements of an opera production to work together. This all means that I have to limit myself to just a few productions.
Q: You're a very busy man, traveling widely for work, learning scores, communicating in many languages. What do you do when you're not making music?
IF: I love to play chess! When we go on orchestra tours we always have games like this. Once I remember I had a tour with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra, which was founded by Abbado. They were very tired after a few concerts so I told the orchestra that if any of them beat me in chess there would be no rehearsal next morning! Immediately a number of players lined up to challenge me, and they eventually wore me down.
Q: Did you lose on purpose?
IF: No, there were just too many opponents — a blitz! Each was a five-minute game but there were at least 20 of them!