Iván Fischer and the City of Budapest: Music and politics

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.

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

Photo: Marco Borggreve / Washington Post

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.

May 7, 2016
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Király Rogerius
Király Rogerius
May 7, 2016 10:01 pm

As as a Hungarian-American composer, I wonder how much of this money goes to support the music of living Hungarian composers. Don’t look to the US as a model for that! The “star system” in this country lavishly rewards conductors and performers, but not composers (who are, of course actually the creators of music and not re-creators.)

May 7, 2016 10:26 pm
Orban/Tarlos Playing Good-Cop/Bad-Cop Orban, anticipating the likely backlash of this piece of petty punitivity, wanted the pleasure and power-play of the funding cut, but did not want to be on the receiving end of the inevitable international flak. So he let Tarlos play the role of bad cop, and reserved the option of washing his hands of the matter. It’s Orban’s characteristically devious way of engineering things, though Tarlos is a pretty nasty piece of work in his own right. It is neither the career nor the reknown of Ivan Fischer — who is one of the most distinguished conductors in the world today, much in demand everywhere — that will suffer from this latest instance of Orbanian malice. It is Hungary’s classical music-lovers, but Orban rightly reckons that these are less likely to be his voters. And it’s also the next generation’s potential music-lovers in schools, but they’re better off doing sports (which Orban has lately reckoned as part of his health budget). And the concerts in the senior homes? The seniors are no doubt better off in church church. And for those who want music, let them go to the pop music concerts of Orban’s pal Akos Kovacs… Read more »
May 8, 2016 3:20 am

Orban Opinion Management M.O. – see what I responded on your last post to yesterday’s story.

May 8, 2016 7:55 am

[Replying here too, so people need not keep flipping back]

I wonder how the two factions in ATV interact.

It’s appalling that even something as black and white as this can be smeared by Orban. The EU should recruit János Tiborcz; he deserves all support and admiration, running against the Foul Fidesz (Odious Orban) tide and insisting on the truth despite the risk to himself. How desperately Hungary needs more people of character and principle, like János Tiborcz!

May 8, 2016 3:18 am

This is yet another clear example of Fidesz political policy in action. Istvan Tarlos has been given the task of “front man” for the Man who wishes to make clear to Mr. Fischer just who waves the baton in Hungary and with what success!

The vindictiveness of Viktor Orban as an individual is not limited to political figures. His personal attacks over many years against Mr. Gyurcsany are on record. However, anyone else, whether Ivan Fischer or the Hungarian people at large are treated with contempt by the contemptible leader of this government whenever he feels slighted or merely wishes to steal more from the public purse. (Football stadiums count as spending on healthcare…)

Jon Van Til
May 8, 2016 5:04 am

I took a short ride on the number 1 tram on a roundabout way from the Danube regatta to the inspiring concert/demonstration yesterday, and passed three stadiums in various states of construction. Budapest–many forints for football but far fewer for culture. Compare this state of affairs with Seattle’s recent decision not to fund another stadium:

Baseball player and author Jim Bouton wrote this about Seattle: Its residents “would much rather hike one of the peaks, take ferries across the sound or spend a day in one of its art museums than throw their money at a sports team or its facilities.” What if we were able to say the same of Budapest?

May 8, 2016 11:16 am
The Budapest Festival Orchestra is far too dependent on public funding as are almost all major European orchestras. But without question as Eva has pointed out the funding cut to the BFO is politically motivated. Here in Chicago we have a world class orchestra under the direction of our renowned music director, Riccardo Muti that like the BFO provides many educational opportunities for children and communities at no charge. The CSO also supports and promotes jazz programming and even folk music programming. The CSO’s annual budget is $78 million, contributions from foundations and government agencies totaled only $3.7 million. The big part of the money raised comes from individual contributions of about $20.6 million a year with corporate sponsorships providing about $5.5 million a year. Tickets are also not cheap, and generate about $22.5 million a year. The CSO also generates a lot of money in recorded music sales. The CSO has a huge endowment that more than covers deficits. I am a season ticket holder and also donate about a thousand dollars a year to the CSO. The key difference here is the wealthy and upper middle class of Chicago metro area see supporting the CSO as part of… Read more »
May 8, 2016 12:28 pm

London Calling!

It’s a travesty that Orban’s Commocracy rots Hungarian society at its very roots.

Its culture.

The whole of Hungarian society is rotten, from its theatre productions to its pop music – and its literary history too.

The Hungarian people are ignorant of it, like they’ve been in a catatonic stupor.

I’ve just watched the film ‘Awakening’ and think it’s an allegory for Hungary.

The trolls tell us that this is Orban ‘winning’.

If that’s what Hungary wants – then so be it.

I just wish it wasn’t my taxes to the EU that weren’t being trousered.

One of us has to leave.

If Hungary doesn’t get kicked out and 77million Turks can freely travel around Schengen – then maybe Brexit is the solution.

Even if the UK is not signed up to Schengen it is one of the major donors to the Syrian crisis.

Is it no wonder that Hungary, inter alia, is worried that Brexit might occur?

There’ll be less money available to defraud.

In the meantime it ‘rationalises’ its sponsorship of the BVO – and will be on the lookout for further cuts.

If it ain’t football – it ain’t culture.



Nicholas Molnar
Nicholas Molnar
May 10, 2016 4:13 pm

I cannot comment on the budget or financial policy of Budapest, but, from other sources I learned, that the Hungarian Government, lead by Orban, is providing for several billion forint support to Fisher and his orchestra.

May 10, 2016 4:44 pm

Didn’t you read the article? Are you a new troll?

Currently the BFO receives 4.52 million euros from two sources: the central government and the city of Budapest.

May 10, 2016 8:11 pm

Mr. Fischer gets my utmost respect with his stand under the circumstances. He speaks out full well knowing the great financial burden of having a first class orchestra under his wing. If only the opposition could unite , present and act with the magnificent confidence emanating from him and his life’s work Magyarorszag just might be in another place. Looks like I just might have to purchase some more BFO music under his direction. Mr. Fischer arguably is one of the greatest interpreters and conductors of classical music in our age. One day I wouldn’t be surprised if he composed ‘Lament for My Country’. His composition would be in contrast to the excruciating atonal notes coming from the land of his birth. The screeching gets louder and more belligerent.