NT: Please tell me first where you are setting out for in the morning.
IF: There are some hard tours we do, but this is the opposite. A light summer excursion – three concerts, two lovely cities in northern Italy, Brescia and Bergamo, which are comfortably close to each other, so there’s not much journey inbetween. Actually we can stay in the same hotel for both concerts which is always good news for us. And then we go to Grenoble, to France. It’s almost like a weekend for us. In contrast to some of the tours we do, from China to South America.
NT: And the concerts themselves?
IF: Ferenc Liszt, who has an anniversary this season, Tchaikovsky, and a little Bartók which we often do as a Hungarian orchestra.
NT: As a conductor you have travelled a great deal, but you always come back to Budapest. What brings you home? What keeps you here?
IF: My orchestra. When I started the Budapest Festival Orchestra twenty-seven years ago, I had to make a decision then where to do it. I founded the orchestra here in Budapest because I knew many outstanding musicians. We formed this new orchestra with an enthusiastic young generation with a completely devoted, hard-working and idealistic attitude. And of course now a quarter of a century later it’s wonderful to know that this has become one of the best orchestras in the world. At that time we wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing, we were much more modest in our goals. But now this is a sensation, I really believe that it’s among the very best. And it certainly keeps me here. But I also like to be here, I think Budapest is a city with an especially high cultural level, which is very important to me.
NT: What does it mean to you, as a conductor, to be a Hungarian?
IF: Music is a very international art form. Probably more than anything else. Even visual art has more to do with where you are. Of course music does too, and we probably understand music by Béla Bartók more than other musicians from other countries, or even music by Ferenc Liszt, for example. But I warn against any kind of exaggeration here. I think a great musician who can be American, Finnish, whatever, probably very quickly learns the special musical language which belongs to a certain nation, and I think also a talented Hungarian can play Elgar very well. You don’t really need to be British to understand that. So I think we musicians are bridge builders. We are those people who try to improve communication among people. This is an extremely important role. I’m very aware of this, and I also see this as my responsibility. When I take a Hungarian orchestra abroad, then we present Hungarian culture for example in Italy tomorrow. On the other hand we also perform Italian music in Hungary, and then we present Italian culture to the Hungarian audience. I think this is the best service we can do in Europe. So I see myself as a communicator, trying to bring nations and people together.
NT: In the twenty-seven years since you set up your Orchestra, has the musical education of the players, and indeed the teaching of music in Hungary changed significantly? How good is musical education in Hungary today? Will you continue to get the players you need, in future?
IF: Hungary has a wonderful record of music education. We were very fortunate to have had a person of the calibre of Zoltán Kodály here, who was not only a great composer, but also a great educator, a person with a powerful mission to make people and especially children more cultured, more educated, especially in music. Because he believed that music is an important part of a better, fuller and richer life. And it helps other aspects of life as well. Kodály had a brilliant mind, he created an educational method, and he also had the charisma to organise a number of his students and send them out all over the country. And eventually a whole campaign was created, music schools were formed, and non-professional choirs popped up all over Hungary. This was back in the 1930s. Despite all the political changes, Kodály continued this wonderful campaign even during the Communist period. So there was an unbroken development of the Hungarian musical eduation system, from probably about 1930 until today. The result of all this is a network of music schools, a network of specialised schools with a higher degree of music classes. And this has had two outcomes. First of all Hungary has produced more musical talents than any country I know. And has also produced a very knowledgeable and highly educated audience for music. So I think Kodály achieved exactly what he wanted. Now the question is if this music school system is sustainable or not. Because many factors have changed. First of all the taste has changed. Young people listen more to pop music than to classical music. Our kids listen to as much pop as those in any other country, but there seems to me to be a wonderful balance in Hungary. Of course the school system also keeps their interest in classical music alive, the teaching of the Kodály method may be weaker now, maybe it seizes the imagination of less Hungarian kids than twenty or thirty or fifty years ago, but it still achieves a lot. So taste has changed. The other factor which has changed is the financing of these schools. During the completely state-controlled Communist period they were subsidised – very moderately, but it was all there and state controlled and they functioned extremely well. In the more free economy of the last twenty years there is more pressure on local authorities, so music teaching may seem like a luxury now. But I’m still reasonably happy that many local authorities have kept their music schools, and we still see wonderful talents emerging from there.
NT: So you don’t see a danger with these changes that music might become more elitist – that children from poorer families would have less opportunity?
IF: Things have changed a lot. For example, let me talk briefly about the history of Gypsy music in Hungary. Within the Gypsy community there has always been a wonderful tradition of musicians. Not trained musicians, they rarely attend music school, they learn from the father or the grandfather, and the son usually plays the same instrument, so the son of a double bass player plays the double bass, and the son of a violinist plays the violin – very often this is the only ‘toy’ in their house, so its a natural thing. When they grew up, these musicians for the last one or two hundred years played mostly in restaurants or pubs, but with the emergence of recorded music, it became less and less affordable for a restaurant to hire three or four Gypsy musicians to play. So there was much less work for this tradition, and this is a certain art form which can easily die out if one doesn’t find new ways of offering work to these musicians. I think nowadays when the whole Roma problem is especially acute, it would be a great loss to drive the potential musicians back into a potentially jobless state. So traditional Hungarian Gypsy music is certainly an endangered art form. But in the classical music field I don’t really see any problem.
NT: Among the many strands of your own Orchestra, is there a discernible Gypsy strand? Do you encourage Gypsy music?
IF: Hungary, as a musical country is a melting pot. I think geographically it is in a very fortunate position. It may be less fortunate from a social or political point of view, because there has been so much traffic through here – with Turks and Austrians and Russians and so on – everybody marching through. Musically speaking this is an advantage, because they all left their musical traditions here, which have been integrated by people living in Hungary. For example having so many Gypsy musicians certainly influenced the classical musical field – composers like Liszt and even Johannes Brahms, who visited Hungary regularly – they loved the playing of these Gypsy bands, and integrated this tradition into their music. Equally, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a lot of musicians went to study in Vienna, and brought back the Viennese elegance and dance forms, and something of the Viennese style to Hungary. A little more recently, many Hungarian violinists went to study with Russian teachers, probably the most talented had this possibility, and they brought back something of the great Russian string playing tradition to Hungary. I could add various folklore from the Balkans. All of this contributed to wonderfully rich musical traditions, which in this very busy part of the world, all merged and helped each other, and created this extremely rich musical culture which produces so many talents in Hungary.
NT: You are also an accomplished composer, as well as a conductor. I note from your biography your interest in the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. What drew you to his work?
IF: I may have to disappoint you here. This was almost a joke. I had a commission, I was asked to compose something for a Dutch group of musicians. A cycle of concerts with translated texts. It was a beautiful idea, to create a festival of translations, where you hear somebody’s work, a poem or even a song, translated into another language. And it really fascinated me. At the same time I came across a beautiful old edition of a Dutch translation of Spinoza’s work – because of course Spinoza wrote in Latin. But being in Amsterdam, he was very soon translated into Dutch. It could be the very first translation, from the seventeenth century. And I looked into this, charming but still understandable old Dutch, and the charming thing is that while there are some of Spinoza’s thoughts in it, they are mostly slightly twisted or misunderstood, but in a way which somehow makes its own sense. So I liked very much this humorous idea of composing something on a translation which you could also call a “mistranslation”, and it became a humorous piece of translated Spinoza, and it’s written in old Dutch.
NT: Spinoza himself was excommunicated by the Jewish community in his time. In past interviews you yourself stress the affinity you feel with those who innovate, people who think “outside the box”. Is Spinoza’s originality another aspect which draws you to him?
IF: I like his mind. Actually there is something extremely rational about his thinking. A good example is when he describes what a miracle is. He describes it in the most rational way possible, that we do not know the whole world, we only know a limited part of reality, and what we do not know because we cannot see into it, is what we call a miracle. It’s actually a very easy way of understanding it – a miracle is something I don’t know. I don’t know the reasons for it, I don’t know the rules, how it links together with my reality. So it’s a miracle.
Spinoza’s mind is extremely original, and also his beautiful idea of combining the divine with nature is something extraordinary and very beautiful.
NT: You also spoke in a recent interview in the Jewish Chronicle in Britain about the importance of saving the Yiddish language. And I believe a work of yours was composed in Yiddish?
IF: I think it’s a beautiful language, I know a few people who learnt it – I mean who didn’t inherit it from their parents but made the effort to learn Yiddish – it is a very rich, witty language, full of fun, and full of deep feelings, and I think its a terrible thing that it is basically wiped out. Although I must say the Yiddish langauge refuses to be dead, because there are more and more people who do something about it. But in its natural habitat in eastern Europe, where it once flourished, it is basically non-existent. In all the Jewish communities in the small towns and small villages where this language was spoken, the people were killed, their culture was wiped out. So the Yiddish language only exists now in certain small communities in Israel and in the United States. And there are a very few individuals who keep it alive. I don’t really consider myself a composer, I’m really a conductor, a “composing-conductor” I should say, but I somehow felt that to write a few songs and a few works in Yiddish would be a simple contribution to the conservation of a lost language. Imagine if you would research some languages which died out two thousand years ago, Sumerian for example, or Hittite, and you suddenly found compositions in that language. It would be extremely valuable. So I had this strange, maybe somewhat self-centred dream, that if I compose something it will help the language to be remembered, when nobody speaks it any more. It’s a small contribution to its conservation.
NT: Your orchestra is called the Budapest Festival Orchestra – which festival did you have in mind?
IF: Historically-speaking, this was formed as a festival orchestra, meaning that it was not permanent, we only came together for a few, festive occasions, three or four in a year. People had jobs elsewhere, we also didn’t have money, we couldn’t afford to be together more than that. But gradually, as the orchestra became more and more famous, we were invited to many countries. And as we started to receive a modest subsidy, we could start to work as a permanent team, and employ people. This was in 1992. And then I was faced with a dilemma: what should we call the now permanent Budapest Festival Orchestra? Should we drop the name “festival” because it had become misleading, people may think that it is not a full-year organisation. After considering this, many of us including myself came to the conclusion that there is something beautiful about the name, because it reminds us that each and every concert has to be a festive occasion – that one should never fall into the routine of an everyday concert. Each concert must be always a festive event. So in order to keep that sort of goal and ideal, we decided to keep the word “festival” in the name of the Budapest Festival Orchestra.
NT: Do you feel you have influenced, or changed other orchestras?
IF: I have been thinking very long and hard about what we are doing there on stage. I don’t think its only entertainment, but it also should not be simply something that we do for ourselves. The public is there, so we serve the public. But we can only serve the public if we feel a certain joy about the music. And joy can be felt about any kind of music, even tragic music, which you can play in a joyous way. And what we are doing I think, our mission is to share that joy, or transmit the joy which we feel to the audience. And I very often speak about this with my musicians, that they should not forget that what they are doing is not work, it is not a job, it is not just about getting it right. They should really only do it if they feel a genuine joy about music-making, and they are happy to transmit that to the audiences. This is what we try to do.
NT: And is that still valued by the state? In times of economic difficulties it is harder for goverments to justify expenditure on culture.
IF: We are extremely grateful for any help we receive, and in that sense we are wonderfully valued, because the state and the city of Budapest help us. This year our subsidy was reduced by about twenty per cent, which was extremely painful and we may have to cancel a few concerts. But we very much hope that it’s only a temporary setback, and that it will be restored soon. Because I think that what we are doing is an important service for Hungary, for the city of Budapest, the name we carry all over the world, and for the general cultural level of people living here, and it also builds cultural bridges with other nations.
NT: The orchestra is 27 years old, where will it be, where would you like it to be in 27 years time?
IF: Just two years ago we celebrated our 25th anniversary. These are loyal people, they have been there for very many years. I also have no time to stop. This is certainly my favourite orchestra. So I can’t wait. I’m very much looking forward to our fiftieth anniversary.