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Interview with Ivan Fischer

Ivan FischerA few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Ivan Fischer, the new principal guest conductor of the NSO for WGMS and their internet radio station The occasion coincided with the release of his new Mahler recording – the Second (“Resurrection”) Symphony for Channel Classics.

Ivan Fischer is an ardent fan of Mahler (“one of the greatest Geniuses of music history – on the same level as Bach or Beethoven”) and the founder of the Hungarian Mahler Society. I suggest that to firmly establish Mahler on the musical menu in Budapest might have been more difficult than in, say, Germany or the United States – but apparently I am wrong. Not the audience which loves Mahler, Fischer says, had to be convinced, but the musicians. After a superb recording of the Sixth Symphony (which I reviewed in November and will feature prominently on my upcoming Mahler overview), his second Mahler recording raises the prospect of a Mahler cycle with the Budapest Festival Orchestra – but Mr. Fischer immediately waves off. Not a fan of complete cycles, he’d rather only conduct those works that he has a truly deep connection with and leave the others to other conductors. He admits straightaway that there are already so many full cycles that there is no point in just doing another one. The symphony of Mahler’s that he is less fond of than the others is – not surprising for a ‘Mahlerian’ - the pompous glory-feast (my words, not his) that is the Eight Symphony. This very complicated, complex, monumental work (his words, not mine) is “not his cup of tea”.

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Mahler 2

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Mahler 6
Getting excited talking about Mahler, he reveals that far beyond just sharing the Austro-Hungarian cultural background, his connections to Mahler are deeper, still. His and Mahler’s family started as Jewish shopkeepers in the Tartas Tatras Mountains and went on to transfer their spiritual drive from religion to music. Fischer sees a nearly-religious devotion to music still very much present in his part of the world… and speaking of quasi-religious musical devotion, the conversation is back to Mahler and the curious phenomenon that Mahler either inspires the fiercest of fervor and zeal (my own Mahler CD collection – well over 100 in number – could well exemplify the obsession) in the listener or does not move him or her at all. A “paradox” to Fischer, he attributes this to the modernity of Mahler’s music… a modernity he does not hear in the harmonic language of Mahler but his ‘collage approach’ to composing; the juxtaposition and combination of very disparate elements: folk music, military and marching band noise, nature’s sounds, etc. As such he sees Mahler much more in the light of those composers that came after him than he sees similarities with Bruckner, for example.

Other Reviews:

Tim Page, Fischer and Co. Provide A First-Rate Account of Mahler's 2nd (Washington Post, October 8)
While the programs for this season’s concerts of Ivan Fischer are already set (all-Mendelssohn on February 8, 9, 10, a Children’s Concert on February 11th and Brahms’ Second Symphony in his first appearance as PGC on November 30th – surrounded with smaller works by Sibelius, Kodaly, Henderson, Richard Strauss, and Dvořák) – but Mahler in one of the future seasons is not only a possibility but would be a “wonderful thing to do”. Mahler fans in the area would surely be as delighted as Fischer purports to be about the idea. His opening concert, meanwhile, opens with a tribute to the NSO and Maestro Slatkin in the form of the new American work, Robert Henderson’s “Einstein’s Violin”.

Fischer responds candidly to the suggestion that there is – the neo-romantic return of composing notwithstanding – still an air of suspicion among concertgoers to everything that sounds ‘too beautiful’ at first hearing. He sees this as the separation of two different appeals: one to shallow- and one to ‘deep’ listening. Great music, he argues, is the one that combines the two. Even more intriguing his candor when asked whether conductors, to be great, need to be particularly aware of their weaknesses or think of themselves as not having any. It was a question that Marin Alsop navigated with all her PR savvy earlier this year. Fischer disarmingly went to the point: Conducting can easily inflate the ego – so he keeps in mind that the conductor is the servant of the music and the composer. In doing so, Fischer says, he is very aware that he does not posses the key to certain pieces and composers and therefore doesn't try to open them.

For the full interview go to WGMS’ internet radio station VivaLaVoce’s website.
Click here for a mp3 download, here for a Windows Media Player download.


Garth Trinkl said...

Congratulations, Jens, on this important interview of an increasingly important presence on the Nation's Capital's musical scene. And good luck on all your future musical and educational work with WGMS and its web-affiliate.

However, I believe that the following sentence in your review above requires clarification:

"His opening concert, meanwhile, opens with a tribute to the NSO and Maestro Slatkin in the form of the new American work [sic], Robert Henderson’s “Einstein’s Violin”."

How is this ten year old work by, I believe, a still London-based American music critic and composer, a tribute to the NSO and Maestro Slatkin? Did Mr Slatkin commission the work for one of his British affiliate orchestras a decade or so ago?

And frankly, while I welcome Ivan Fischer's more formalized return to the Nation's Capital, and the NSO, as NSO principal guest conductor, his programming for the next season strikes me as uninspired, except perhaps for the program matching shorter works by Sibelius, Kodaly, and Richard Strauss. Don't you think that perhaps the American Youth Orchestra or the Montgomery County Classic Youth Orchestra could have been retained by Michael Kaiser and the Kennedy Center for the not that difficult to perform all-Mendelssohn and Shakespeare tribute, freeing the NSO for more challenging European, American, and Asian classical repertoire, including important repetoire from the 20th century?

Unless he quickly shows greater independence and programming strength, I personally will not look forward to the possibility, mentioned by some, of Mr Fisher replacing Mr Slatkin as the NSO new chief music director. (The importance of this position going to a world-renowned American conductor, such as Kent Nagano, versus a European, Asian, or Latin American conductor is another subject...)

Lastly, I compliment the Kennedy Center and the NSO on finally facing reality and lowering in price by 10 per cent the rear orchestra seats (20% of the floor?),which are hardly ever filled thus costing the Kennedy Center precious box office revenues, citizen good-will, and classical music education and outreach.

jfl said...

Next time I talk to Fischer, I'll suggest that his program choices are uninspired. :) If it takes Fischer to make the NSO play Mendelssohn well, I'll take it. Call me a snob, but I don't want to hear the American Youth Orchestra or the Montgomery County Classic Youth Orchestra do Mendelssohn.

I would not worry about him replacing Slatkin, at any rate. I think the rumor (is there a substantial one) is not going to materialize at all.



Garth Trinkl said...

Well, Jens, then there will remain a HUGE amount of Shakespeare-themed humanist, Western classical music that Washington regional audiences will probably never hear in their lifetimes because of the NSO's largely unimaginative programming and your insistence that you only want to hear the musicians of the NSO perform Mendelssohn, rather than comparably fine younger semi-professional musical talent. I also hope you will quickly let Mr Fischer and the NSO know that you disapprove of the NSO uniting with the Women of the University of Maryland Concert Choir for these February concerts, when there are 'much finer' and more professional choristers available in the Washington region.


(I apologize for misspelling Fischer one time above.)




jfl said...

I am not saying they should not play it... just that I would not likely be there to hear it. Aside: What is the problem with Mendelssohn played well by the NSO? It's not precluding other bands to play whatever music they should like to play. Shakespeare-related or not.

Garth Trinkl said...

"What is the problem with Mendelssohn played well by the NSO?"

No problem, Jens. The NSO has performed well, and recently, many of the symphonies, the violin concerto, and some of the Mendelssohn oratorios. In my view, the NSO's very expensive professional services are not required for the 'incidental' music to Midsummer Nights Dream -- given the other highly skilled talent in the region (if not a world-class music conservatory). Up to a half dozen, lesser explored, world emerging classical music masterpieces -- from Europe, the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Asia -- could be explored in the 50 or 55 minutes it takes to perform the complete incidental music to MsND.

In my view, it is yours and Charles job, as new national intellectual and musical leaders, to think about and propose the best use of the NSO's resources.
Would you have been happy (had you been here) with Washington's musical, intellectual, and spiritual life before Robert Aubry Davis launched, on public radio, 'Millennium of Music' over a generation ago, and introduced dozens of pre-Bach masterpieces to national listeners -- works now in the musical consciousnesses of many in the Washington regional audience members?

I personally look forward to the time that the Kennedy Center's and the NSO's classical programming is as well curated as the programs of the National Gallery of Art or the Freer-Sackler Galleries -- or even the Library of Congress.


Anonymous said...

Fischer is a tremendous conductor. His BFO is one of the most distinctive sounding orchestras today. (Their discs of Dvorak, Brahms, Bartok, etc., are all terrific.) For that I can almost forgive him for wasting time on Mahler, the single most overrated composer in the history of music for all who do not recognize the tacky, hysterical drivel he produced as music.

By the way, just what in the name of geography are the "Tartar Mountains?" Are they crusty deposits on teeth, or gobs of sauce for fried fish? Maybe the author meant the TATRAS?


John said...