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Ivan Fischer at the NSO

Tonight, Iván Fischer -- elfin, quirky, smart, unpredictable -- takes the podium for the last time as Principal Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Fischer’s two-year tenure has been promising, uneven, and a little frustrating, if only because it’s a shame to see a conductor so full of ideas unable fully to implement them due to time constraints. Five or six programs a year is not enough to really make a big change in an orchestra. His whole tenure, furthermore, was overshadowed by the announcement of his successor, Christoph Eschenbach, whose appointment as the NSO’s music director as of September 2010 was made known a couple of weeks before Fischer’s first official concert as principal conductor in the fall of 2008. The orchestra, looking ahead to its next leader, didn’t quite seem to connect with Fischer during what amounted to a lame-duck reign.
(read more after the jump)

Fischer, certainly, has been a willing participant in the orchestra’s life. He led the NSO tour to Asia in June 2009, its first international tour in years; he went on the American residencies in Arkansas (2009) and West Virginia (2010). And he sought to provide programs with variety, a certain flair, and a taste of his native Hungary (where he still lives and leads the Budapest Festival orchestra): Leo Weiner’s “Serenade,” Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and “Wooden Prince” ballet were among the pieces the NSO performed for him.

His desire to make every program special -- “you have to think of what the audience wants,” he said in an interview before his accession -- dovetails with his own predilections as an experimenter, a tinkerer: every program is calculated to show something new. His forte is not leading the same thing night after night (as he was compelled to do on the Asia tour); the Dvorak Seventh Symphony, a highlight at its Kennedy Center performance, was sometimes listless in its reiterations on the Asia tour. Rather, he exults in probing, setting new goals for himself, his players, his listeners. He focuses on individual moments in the music, and examines them. You can almost hear him thinking, “What will happen if I try that?” Sometimes this question turns out to be too academic: for instance, the answer to “What will happen if I probe a by-the-book early-music approach?” was a Bach b minor mass conducted with mechanical adherence to the same tempo through the evening. (Some loved the result; I didn’t.)

Intellectual curiosity is one of Fischer’s hallmarks. But my sense is that he wasn’t at the NSO long enough or often enough to get the players fully to go along with him. The crackle and energy of his Budapest Festival Orchestra performances wasn’t always there with the NSO. And there was only so much he could do to improve the orchestra’s sense of ensemble. The strings can sound fantastic, and there have been some improvements in the winds, but precision is still a work in progress.

It’s a shame, because Fischer remains one of the more interesting conductors around, and he had a lot to bring to the NSO. He will, of course, continue to appear with the NSO: he returns next spring for a program of Paganini's violin concerto and Schumann's Third Symphony, showing his breadth and, probably, his flair. And tonight's concert of two Russian classics -- Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" -- offer a lot for him to sink his teeth into. But despite some very fine concerts over the last two years, his time in Washington smacks of a missed opportunity.

By Anne Midgette  |  June 3, 2010; 9:20 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , news , random musings  
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The interesting thing is that one time during Slatkin's tenure the woodwinds were better than the strings; today of course the situation is reversed. To find a possible explanation, I rapidly looked into my old programs and saw that at one time the Assistan Principal of the flute section was Elizabeth Rowe who is now principal of the Boston Symphony.

Which leads to the next question. Did Fischer have authority to hire musicians? I know that the new principal timpanist, Jauvon Gilliam, was hired by Christoph Eschenbach, but how about principal oboist Nicholas Stovall?

And finally, I would like to hear what do you all think it was Leonard Slatkin's most important appointment. Yes, this is something that could open a bag of worms. And there is no doubt that Slatkin hired some great musicians: all the string principals as well some associates like Elisabeth Adkins. But my pick would be Martin Hackleman, the principal hornist who did a lot to improve the section (though granted, there is still a lot of room for more improvement.)

Then, there are the musicians appointed by Slatkin who are no longer with the NSO: Daniel Matsukawa, who is now principal bassonist in Philly, and John Tafoya.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 3, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

Well, I just praised Martin Hackleman, but he had an off night tonight. But I still believe that his overall contribution to the NSO is positive.

In fact the concert was a disappointment. Fischer is too elegant of a conductor for this repertoire. The magic element was lacking in Scheherezade, plus I prefer a more full-blooded reading of the work a la Previn or Silvestri. Even "The Rite of Spring" was perhaps too well-controlled.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 4, 2010 1:03 AM | Report abuse

Hmmmm...IMO the main "missed opportunity" here was the NSO management's inability to retain Fischer on a permanent basis.

Even in his limited interim capacity, Fischer made a palpable difference with this orchestra....and the excitement and respnse of the players was easily evident to this concert-goer.

I also have high hopes for incoming maestro Eschenbach. But Fischer was an obvious "good fit", and I regret that he was not retained.

BTW, last night's program (Scheherazade/Rite of Spring), was to me a highlight of the seaon.

Ivan, I'll miss you....

BTW (2) As for Slatkin's most important appointment, a no-brainer: first violinist Nurit Bar-Josef.

Posted by: jrosenstock | June 4, 2010 7:26 AM | Report abuse

Before going yesterday, I was not enthused about the program, both pieces being overly familiar to me, or so I thought. Scheherazade certainly was but Rite of Spring left me feeling that I was hearing a different version from the one I was familiar with. In pieces we have heard many times, we always seem to know what's coming next, what the next measure will sound like. But I did not have that reaction to the Rite of Spring. Yes, it was all familiar and sometimes I knew what was coming next, but not always. As for Scheherazade, it is a clever, beautiful, well constructed, interesting piece of music whose only fault seems to me to be that it is heard so much that it tends to fall into the background. Not so last night, but that is a different story.

I had the good fortune to hear the concert twice! First at a working rehearsal yesterday morning from the middle of the orchestra seats and last night from the chorus seats behind and above the orchestra. I have always been curious about what the experience would be to be almost in the orchestra and we managed to get our tickets for last night's performance changed from our usual obstructed view, first tier seats. There was a big difference. Being that close to the orchestra separates the sound and therefore I was able to hear different lines of the music individually whereas they are usually so blended that I can't distinguish them. The winds are all quite a bit louder from up there and the strings are a little more subdued. The brass, because they are usually aiming at the audience, were about the same fore and aft. We were sitting directly above Jauvon Gilliam and so the percussion was particularly pronounced and I confess I sort of like feeling my stomach rumble in sympathy witn bass drum. We thought that we would spend most of the concert watching Ivan Fischer, but found we were so interested in what the orchestra was doing that we paid him little attention. I will say that from that perspective, up on his podium, the conductor looks small and vulnerable. I would recommend that people take advantage of the availability of these seats and listen to a few concerts from there from time to time. Be forewarned though, you will be sitting on church pews with cushions. I suppose the idea is to keep us from slouching and looking alert for the benefit of the rest of the audience.

Summarizing then, I had a grand time.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | June 4, 2010 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I am not sure that NSO management could have done anything to keep Fischer. If I understand correctly, he was proposed the NSO directorship. And at one point he was seriously considered for Philly as well.

Yet, he would have never given up the directorship of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, which he founded and which gives him rehearsal conditions that no other band would. Where else can he, for example, rehearse which each group (i.e. strings, woodwinds, etc.) separately?

I am however looking forward hearing him whenever he comes to conduct here, or next year in New York with his own band.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | June 7, 2010 1:45 AM | Report abuse

I do not believe that giving up his association with the Budapest Festival Orchestra was actually a requirement for the National Symphony position. Correct me if I am wrong. I recall that Maestro Fischer directly cited family considerations in his decision – shocking to our proud Nation’s Capital at the time – not to accept the NSO position, as he would certainly have been forced to relocate his quite young family from Budapest and the European Union to the Washington, D.C. area and the United States. I recall this as a very major consideration, just as it is a consideration that numerous executive, diplomatic, major non-profit and academic families – in many cases dual income -- must make in this age of economic, if not cultural, globalization.

I attended most of Maestro Fischer’s concerts with the NSO and was moderately satisfied with his careful performances, if not his vision for the orchestra or for the Kennedy Center. I regard Maestro Fischer as a superb but conservative, niche conductor, who would not have fit in over a longer term with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center – his superb work with children and classical music aside. I feel that Maestro Eschenbach is a more promising longer-term prospect for restoring classical music luster and leadership to the National Symphony and to the Kennedy Center. Maestro Fisher’s engagement with contemporary classical music of his own era was even more limited than that of Christian Thielemann. Readers here, sadly, don’t have access to the proprietary National Symphony Orchestra performance data base (the NSO now lags the World Bank in transparency), but I recall Maestro Fischer’s association with living contemporary classical music limited to his conducting one work by Robert Henderson – “Einstein’s Violin”. Here is a link to Richard Freed’s program note to that American work from the last century:

PS. I also believe that Maestro Fischer was not put as immediately in Maestro Eschenbach’s shadow as was indicated in the Washington Post comment above.

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 7, 2010 9:46 AM | Report abuse

snaketime1: Thanks for the insights. I myself had forgotten the timing of the announcement of Eschenbach's appointment: it came on September 26, 2008, and Fischer's first official concert as principal conductor was on October 15, 2008. One could debate how "overshadowed" Fischer actually was or felt, but the Eschenbach announcement was certainly a very big deal for the orchestra.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 8, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

I guess I was looking back to Nov 30 - Dec 2, 2006 and Iván Fischer’s first appearance as the new NSO Principal Guest Conductor, in which he led an eclectic program of Henderson’s “Einstein’s Violin”, Sibelius’s Valse Triste from “Kuolema”, Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance in C major, Strauss’s Second Waltz Sequence from Der Rosenkavalier, Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, and Brahms’s Symphony #2.

Later, this love of variety somewhat subsided with his emphasis on single longer works, and while I admired the concept of the Rimsky-Korsakov/Stravinsky final pairing (which I had to miss at the last minute due to work), I wish that the second half of this program could have opened with any of the hundreds of very short works by one of the living composers from around the world – post-Soviet or otherwise (even if Fischer didn’t feel that he had time to carefully prepare the 8 minute Kurtag “Grabstein fur Stephan).

For example, a short work by the late Lepo Sumera would have been nice (especially considering that a young Baltic a cappella group performed a half dozen short works by living composers on the Millennium Stage on Friday evening.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 8, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

snaketime1: That's interesting about his love of variety. The program you cite is certainly a lot wackier (I mean that in a good way) than anything I heard him do after I got to DC in January 2008. I believe the only living composer I heard him conduct was Daniel Kellogg, and that wasn't, of course, a piece he'd commissioned himself.

Posted by: Anne Midgette | June 9, 2010 12:20 AM | Report abuse

I arrived in D.C. from New York City in January 1977, so – yes – perhaps I was in a slightly better setting to think a little more about Iván Fischer’s “fit” with the NSO in 2007 and 2008 than you were.

I’d be curious to hear what William Kirchhoff, cicciofrancolando, jrosenstock, and the others who enjoyed the NSO Rimsky-Korsakov/Stravinsky pairing think of the idea that maybe one more, fairly short contemporary classical work could have been added to last week’s program – perhaps one of the late Petrograd/Leningrad/Saint Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya’s very short Symphonies, which were championed by Alex Ross about ten days ago in his blog. She was a fellow pupil and "friend" of Shostakovich's. (I’d, of course, also be curious as to NSO administrators Rita Shapiro and Nigel Boon’s take on this.)

This week’s NSO program is slated at 100 minutes and includes four composers – Grieg’s Lyric Suite, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symphony No. 4 “Magma” (with percussion soloist), Bernstein’s Overture and Suite from the operetta Candide, and Washington, D.C.-native Duke Ellington’s “Harlem.”

For those who enjoyed the YouTube clip of György Kurtág’s “Grabstein für Stephan” for guitar and chamber orchestra, I can now highly recommend Kurtag’s even more powerful “Stele” for large orchestra (commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic in the mid-1990’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall), which Sir Simon Rattle used to open for Mahler’s full Symphony #10 two and one half years ago at Carnegie Hall. (NSO audiences will hear only part of Mahler’s Symphony #10 – the Adagio -- this coming season in November under the Finnish conductor Susanna Mälkki.)

(In the 1990’s, Maestro Christoph Eschenbach was a major champion – in performance and on recording – of music by previously suppressed composers from the Soviet Union and Soviet Union-dominated Eastern Europe – although perhaps not to the supreme degree that Maestro Mstislav Rostropovich was.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | June 9, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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