The Budapest Festival Orchestra and its founder and conductor, Iván Fischer, need no introduction. BFO is one of the top orchestras in the world. It proudly carries the name of the Hungarian capital and is thus one of the cultural trademarks of the city. There are naturally other orchestras in Hungary, but none has such an international presence as the Budapest Festival Orchestra, due largely to the energetic and imaginative Iván Fischer.
A quick look at the orchestra’s program will give you an idea of BFO’s busy schedule. In the next few months they will perform in London, Bruges, Baden-Baden, Amsterdam, and San Sebastián. In October they will be going to China and South Korea. In between their international performances and concerts in Budapest they make time to give “cocoa concerts” for youngsters, free of charge, to introduce them to classical music. They keep in close touch with Hungarian elementary and high schools, and the orchestra regularly invites school children to attend rehearsals. They visit facilities for older citizens, and they go to very poor villages where they give concerts for people who most likely have never in their lives heard a live orchestra or classical music. Every year they give a large outdoor concert free of charge on Heroes’ Square in Budapest. In brief, Iván Fischer’s orchestra is a jewel of Hungarian musical culture.
Why am I writing about the Budapest Festival Orchestra today? Because Iván Fischer and his orchestra are being threatened by the bellicose mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós. What began, at least on the surface, as a financial dispute over the sum the City of Budapest contributes to the orchestra has by now, a week later, become a full-fledged political attack on Fischer. The reason? He made it clear on several occasions that he is not fond of Viktor Orbán’s regime.
Iván Fischer is well known in classical music circles (and beyond), but István Tarlós needs an introduction, although I’ve written about him a few times over the years. My first recollection of him goes back to 2006 when as mayor of Óbuda he got into a lengthy argument with an MDF member of the council, called him all sorts of names, and finally told him “Don’t play games because I will knock your glasses off and will even stomp on them.” Once he became mayor of Budapest he chose a politically extreme actor and an anti-Semitic politician-writer to transform the city’s New Theater into a stronghold of far-right and often anti-Semitic productions. This decision, which prompted several demonstrations, was reported in most major newspapers in Germany and the United States.
Tarlós is also a homophobe, who last summer wanted to expel the Pride Parade from Andrássy Street and move it to a wholesale marketplace in the outskirts of the city. During an interview he shared his “private opinion” that he finds homosexuality “unnatural” and gays “repulsive.” He has a real “soft” spot for the homeless. Led by Tarlós, the Fidesz majority of the city council passed a local ordinance that banned the homeless from public places. Offenders could be jailed or fined up to $650.
And finally, I think we may safely say that Tarlós is not free of anti-Semitic prejudices. In 2013 he gave an interview on HírTV where he complained that Erzsébet Gy. Nagy of the Demokratikus Koalíció “made a statement and began her declaration with ‘Blessed is he who considers the poor! The Lord delivers him in the day of trouble.’ She quoted from the Book of Psalms. Now it is one thing that when they open the Bible on such occasions it always opens to the Old Testament, but I don’t want to say anything about this here.” And a little later: “I believe in the Lord, although it is true that I read the New Testament more often.” In brief, we are dealing here with a real charmer.
Going back to the current controversy. On April 27 István Tarlós announced that the City of Budapest will give only 60 million forints (€191,000) instead of 260 million forints (€827,000) to the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The announcement came without any prior warning in the middle of the season when the orchestra’s schedule was already set. The immediate explanation from the deputy mayor in charge of culture was that the orchestra gets a large yearly contribution from the central government and therefore is not in need of such major support from the city. Iván Fischer’s answer was a video on which he explained the effect this reduced contribution will have on the offerings of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. They will have to cancel 30 school visits, ten children’s opera performances, three concerts in the Palace of Arts in Budapest, and there will be no free midnight concert in December. In addition, three Bach church concerts and three others in abandoned provincial synagogues will have to be dispensed with. A foreign trip to Ravenna, Vilnius, Riga, and Saint Petersburg must be scrapped.
Tarlós didn’t wait long to answer. He accused Fischer of “losing his self-control” and announced that if “Fischer doesn’t stop his peremptory hysterics, threats, and perturbation we will have to re-think the grant.” He added that “we can use this money on any of the equally internationally famous Hungarian orchestras that don’t kick into our extended hand.” (And no, this is not a mistranslation.) I for one don’t know of another Hungarian orchestra that is as internationally famous. On another occasion Tarlós accused the orchestra of not fulfilling its obligation to the city because “just three or four people visit the pensioners, and there they do a little music making [zenélgetnek]. This is a nice mission, but it is not a performance.”
To make the real motivation behind his action even more transparent Tarlós added that if the orchestra doesn’t get any money from the city then “[Herr] Conductor [actually karnagy úr] will use it as a pretext to talk about political motivation, to disparage the city’s leadership, and to provoke the public.”
That political considerations are at the root of the action of the Fidesz-controlled city council was noticed by The Times, which yesterday compared Tarlós’s attack on Fischer to Pravda’s denunciation of Shostakovich in the 1930s. The same article suggests, not without reason, that “there may be a more sinister reason than austerity” behind Tarlós’s action. “The outspoken Fischer has enemies in Hungarian circles.” The New York Times also came to the same conclusion. “Mr. Fischer has emerged as an outspoken figure in Hungary as the country has drifted rightward in recent years.” Indeed, Fischer has made no secret of his condemnation of Viktor Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” and the country’s dangerous slide toward autocratic rule. In several interviews he expressed his worries about the direction in which the country’s leadership is taking the country.
I assume that what especially upset the Fidesz higher-ups was an e-mail that was found among Secretary State Hillary Clinton’s released documents. It referenced a letter that Iván Fischer had written to Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Bill Clinton and a close friend of the Clintons. The letter was written on June 28, 2011, just before Hillary Clinton’s visit to Budapest. In it Fischer told Jordan that Mrs. Clinton “should be aware that Mr. Orban’s government is demolishing democracy in Hungary and is introducing a harsh system with disregard of human rights and freedom of speech.”
The Hungarian government would, of course, be much happier with a world-class orchestra whose music director’s political views are closer to its own, but they are stuck with Iván Fischer. Back in 2000 Viktor Orbán did try to promote another national orchestra, but it failed to come close to the stature of the Budapest Festival Orchestra. So he had to accept and reward the success of Fischer’s orchestra, however grudgingly. Currently the BFO receives 4.52 million euros from two sources: the central government and the city of Budapest. This amount is considered to be large by Hungarian standards, but in comparison to other world-class orchestras it is quite small. Well-known European orchestras are generously funded by their cities: Berlin 16.7 million, Munich 19.7 million, Zurich 18 million, etc.
After the initial upheaval there was a lull, but in the last two days the Fidesz media launched an attack against Iván Fischer personally as well as the business model of the BFO. The journalist who led the way was András Stumpf of mandiner.hu, who displayed complete ignorance about how modern, western-type orchestras survive financially. It is certainly not from ticket sales.
In Hungary, with the exception of the BFO, all orchestras are totally dependent on government grants, and they live from hand to mouth. Even a more generous, culturally conscious Hungarian government couldn’t properly fund its symphony orchestras. And so, the Budapest Festival Orchestra, in an act of self-preservation, opted for a mixed financial structure, one closer to the American model though without the benefit of a robust tradition of philanthropy.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is structured as a foundation, with a board of directors and an endowment. The orchestra’s endowment, as is usual in western countries, is invested in stocks and bonds. This very idea baffled András Stumpf, who came to the conclusion that if an orchestra has money stashed away, its music director shouldn’t complain about not receiving €827,000. Moreover, he added, in 2014 the orchestra actually made money. So, what do they want? I guess, for Stumpf and others in Hungary, BFO would deserve funding only if its coffers were completely empty. Fischer, on the other hand, knows full well that an endowment is not a checking account. Moreover, he thinks that the benefits that Hungary and Budapest derive from the very existence of the orchestra should be appreciated, and that this appreciation should be expressed, at least in part, in monetary terms.
It took about a couple of hours for the government mouthpiece, Magyar Idők, to list all of the orchestra’s “riches,” as well as Iván Fischer’s own, that András Stumpf had collected. A day later Ottó Gajdics, one of the worst examples of the right-wing media characters hovering around Viktor Orbán, wrote a vicious editorial “Ne dirigálj, vezényelj, Iván!” which is a play on words, indicating that Iván Fischer shouldn’t order people around but should stick with conducting. This particular editorial is a perfect example of the confusion rampant in certain Hungarian circles. Gajdics would like to force Fischer to resign. As if anyone, outside of the board of directors, had any right to remove the music director from his post. I guess Gajdics still lives in the Kádár regime, when the party leadership could decide who could or who couldn’t be the conductor of the Hungarian State Orchestra. The whole editorial is such a base and ugly piece that it is not worth dwelling on. But there are a couple of words at the end of the piece that merit comment. According to Gajdics, Fischer should stick with music. “But it looks as if instead he wants to meddle in politics. Or, what is possibly even worse, he is being used by sly characters working in the background for their own left-liberal political objectives. These are people who rattle on about the mafia state while they laugh up their sleeves that the regime after all paid [the orchestra] a billion.”
Iván Fischer organized a musical demonstration this afternoon, which was attended by thousands. In his speech he talked about a Budapest where there is more music, more joy, more love, and less hatred. He called attention to those who belong to minorities. Many in the audience brought their own instruments and played together with orchestra members. It was a moving scene.