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Arkansas Traveler: Fischer on the NSO's Residency, His Future

Iván Fischer accompanied the NSO to Arkansas, and will lead the orchestra's tour to China in June. (Budapest Festival Orchestra)

I have been wanting for some time to talk to Iván Fischer, the principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, about his impressions of his first experience with the NSO’s American Residencies program, which took him and the orchestra to Arkansas for eight days of master classes, outreach programs and concerts at the end of March. (Orchestra members blogged about the experience here.) We weren’t able to schedule the talk until last week, when I spoke to him by phone in his native Budapest as he prepared to return to the States for his next program with the NSO, which starts on Thursday.

Anne Midgette: What were your impressions of the Arkansas residency?
Iván Fischer: I thought it was such a beautiful idea…. It’s like being in a different world. All of us musicians, we always live in a very, very secluded little world of concert halls and concert audiences and organizations; it feels like a small part of society. And I was so happy to just go out and play for people for whom it means a lot because they don’t have it every week.

ALM: What is the goal for you of doing it? Did you feel a difference in the way you performed with the orchestra?
IF: I don’t think it’s different [from] the way I would perform together with the orchestra [under other circumstances.]… It’s like you tell a story to a person who hears it for the first time; there is an inspiration about it. You see eyes light up in the audience…

(read more)

There was a large number of outreach activities the orchestra did. I wish I had done more. The people organizing it were careful not to overload me. I went to work with a youth orchestra, more or less a high school orchestra… I rehearsed [Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” for] one or two hours. I also spoke… [to] the most faithful arts supporters in a Rotary Club meeting. There were various ways of getting in touch with people.

ALM: Is there anything you would do differently next time? Can you learn from it for your work in Europe?
IF: This should be better known as the greatest example of [an] outreach package I’ve ever seen. I don’t think any [other] orchestra comes close. Of course they have great experience. I think this was their nineteenth residency. [Note: the residency program began in 1992, and has indeed gone to 19 U.S. states.] From what I understand, at first they were finding their way, but now they are brilliant… I was just amazed by the scale, the skill, and somehow the contact. We were invited to many places, a reception at somebody’s home, a club, the human contact was incredible.

I was considering what could be learned from this for European orchestras. It’s a different scale, because here the idea is that you visit one state. Hungary [is] a small country; when we run out we always come home on the same night… [So] this is not easily adaptable… When I worked in the Eighties with the Kent Opera in Great Britain, that had a similar mission…: we wanted to take opera to small communities too…. Go out and play "Marriage of Figaro" to people who have never heard it…. What the National Symphony Orchestra does better, there is a large number of small activities, so they really cover the communities. Schools, clubs, small music organizations. By going out to small places you really penetrate the community.

ALM: What about your plans beyond the NSO? [Note: Fischer’s tenure with the NSO lasts one more season, through 2009-10.]
IF: I have so many things it’s a question of what to refuse. I always will keep Budapest [the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which Fischer founded in 1983], because it’s my brainchild, my baby….
Next season there is a big cycle at Lincoln Center where I will do all [the] Beethoven symphonies in one week. It’s an interesting project, because two concerts will be with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and two with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. A lot of people will question why: Why half with a period orchestra and half with a symphony orchestra? …I think the two worlds are coming closer to each other. There is a new generation of musicians who already have a lot of knowledge, they learn from the period instruments. And I think the period instrument bands, they also [moved] away from a dogmatic historical attitude of “Let’s recreate it exactly as it was at the time,” they came into a more emotional and spontaneous, creative music-making. My feeling is that … the polarized thing we have now of a symphony orchestra on the one hand and a period orchestra on the other, eventually they will come together to form a new kind of orchestra.

By Anne Midgette  |  April 13, 2009; 6:31 AM ET
Categories:  interviews  
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I hope Fischer continues his association with the NSO beyond the 2009-10 season. I would love to have him re-appointed Principal Guest Conductor. Absent that, perhaps we could have him come for one-two weeks every season.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 13, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Good questions here, Anne. I appreciate his thoughts on what the experience meant to him and how it shaped his views about the musicians under his direction. His open mind and apparent eagerness to reach out are qualities to be emulated.

Stephen Dunkel
Bass Trombone
Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra

Posted by: smdunkel2 | April 13, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Anne -- Your blog is a daily must for anyone interested in classical music, opera, etc.

The Q & A format here is excellent.

Some of the best Washington Post writing is now on the blogs such as The Fix, The Weather Gang, and the Nat's Journal.

Thanks to all of you - the extra duty is much appreciated.

Posted by: BethesdaFan | April 13, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

An interesting thought at the end regarding the traditional orchestra eventually coming together with the period orchestra.

I'd like to see some kind of follow-up on this point as to how such a coming together might work.

Posted by: shovetheplanet | April 14, 2009 8:26 AM | Report abuse

Thanks to all for the nice words.

shovetheplanet, off the top of my head I'd say some of the coming together is already happening in terms of the general transparency and flexibility of orchestral playing. Lots of orchestra players are more conversant in early-music idioms than they would have been a couple of decades ago, and symphony orchestras are now expected to be able to play in a range of different styles. Meanwhile, the period groups are moving ever deeper into the Classical and Romantic repertory (Roger Norrington's Brahms, anybody?). So it doesn't seem to me to be a great stretch to imagine a group that could bridge both worlds and switch from period to modern instruments when appropriate.

Posted by: MidgetteA | April 14, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

Has anyone ever done a comprehensive review of the 19 residencies as far as the long term effect they have on the musical life of the places visited?

Posted by: kashe | April 14, 2009 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Cool, Anne.

On the general subject of "period" performance, I wish I had a link to some comments on the subject by Dinu Lipatti, who rejected "period" performing in rather biting terms. (A brilliant guy and wonderful artist, a tragedy he died so young).


Posted by: shovetheplanet | April 15, 2009 3:31 PM | Report abuse

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