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Hungarian Orchestra Goes Bowling on Its First U.S. Trip


When conductor Ivan Fischer decided in 1983 that it was time to conduct his own orchestra, he headed home to Budapest from London. And when he wasn't much taken with the orchestras he found there, he and his friend, pianist Zoltan Kocsis, started their own.

"Hungary has outstanding musical talents, but it didn't have an international, top-quality orchestra," Fischer said last week by phone from Budapest. "I always believed that given those excellent individual talents, there was no reason why one shouldn't be able to form an absolutely first-class orchestra."

So began the Budapest Festival Orchestra. The highly regarded group makes its U.S. debut at the Hollywood Bowl for five nights starting today, a decade after Fischer made his own U.S. debut at the Music Center, conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

"I was rather taken aback when I heard them last year in Budapest," said Ernest Fleischmann, the Philharmonic's executive vice president and managing director, and the man who invited Fischer and his orchestra to the Bowl. "I didn't expect anything of this quality. I went to their concert a skeptic and came out exhilarated."

Before the fall of Communism, Fischer said, Hungarian orchestras had both structural and organizational problems. The 43-year-old conductor called it "generally, a mentality problem. There wasn't enough competitive spirit. The Communist product generally wasn't striving for quality, and whether it was a car or a symphony orchestra doesn't make a lot of difference."

Fischer himself had been competitive for years. Born in Budapest to a musical family, he studied piano, violin and cello before deciding on conducting. In Vienna, he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky, who also taught such people as Zubin Mehta and Claudio Abbado. At the age of 25, he won Britain's Rupert Foundation International Conductor Competition and went on to conduct major orchestras in Britain and, soon, elsewhere.

The Budapest Festival Orchestra started small, coming together like a free-lance orchestra three or four times a year for recordings and concerts. It appeared at European music festivals and went on small tours. Its reputation grew both inside and outside of Hungary.

Then, in 1992, after the fall of the Communist system, "the new mayor of Budapest decided (the orchestra) is the pride of the city," said Fischer, and granted it extensive city subsidies.

The orchestra became permanent, playing at both the 1,200-seat Franz Liszt Academy and a larger multi-purpose hall with nearly 2,000 seats. It has a 40-concert subscription season, chamber music events and even community outreach concerts for children and the elderly.

Fischer said he also contributed administrative ideas he'd observed while conducting in both the United States and Europe, setting up an American-style foundation and board of directors. "The foundation makes sure it is artistically independent," said Fischer. "And the city makes sure that it's safe (economically)."

There are today upward of 80 orchestra members, said principal conductor Fischer, who shares the role of artistic director with composer and pianist Kocsis. All but a handful of the musicians are Hungarian, and most are quite young; the average age, he said, is about 27.

(Kocsis was originally scheduled to appear as soloist with the orchestra Wednesday at the Bowl, playing Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 but recently canceled due to a hand injury. He will be replaced by Israeli pianist Ilana Vered.)

Fischer said it would be difficult to compare the Budapest Festival Orchestra's budget to that of a U.S. orchestra, given the differences in living standards. But in a country where the annual wage for a schoolteacher or young physician would be about 800,000 Hungarian forints ($8,000 U.S.), he estimates a ticket range from 400 ($4) to 1,000 ($10) forints, with a median price of 800 ($8).

All of their concerts "are packed," said Fischer, who reports pressure to add concerts. But he doesn't want to do that, he said: "We still spend a long time rehearsing, and this is a very conscious policy. We want to keep every concert a special event.

"I've been to a lot of American cities," continued Fischer, who is also principal guest conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. "In the U.S., one spends around 11 hours of rehearsal time for a new program. We spend 20 to 25 hours, a little more than double."

The Budapest Festival Orchestra won't have that luxury at the Hollywood Bowl, however, which Fischer said offers minimal rehearsal time, given the number of Bowl programs each summer. The orchestra will be performing four different programs, two of which they also performed in Montreal last weekend.

While this tour comprises only Montreal and Los Angeles, the orchestra has extensive travel plans coming up. It expects to tour Germany in December, Italy in January and Japan in June. In September, 1995, the orchestra lands at New York's Carnegie Hall, where it will mark the 50th anniversary of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's death--which occurred in New York--with a Bartok marathon.

But first is Los Angeles, a first-time visit for everyone in the orchestra except Fischer, who has also conducted at the Bowl twice before. Since he first conducted at the Music Center in 1983, filling in for a then-ailing Carlo Maria Giulini, said Fischer, "I have been to most of the big towns in the United States. Now I can take my orchestra for the first time to the very same town (where I made my U.S. debut), which is wonderful."

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