Conductor Ivan Fischer, who lives in Budapest, Hungary, welcomes the chance to lead his Budapest Festival Orchestra on Friday, January 23, at the State Theater in New Brunswick. New Brunswick is known in Hungary as a quasi-Hungarian city. Johnson & Johnson imported a substantial number of Hungarian employees at the beginning of the 20th century, and New Brunswick soon became home to the largest number of Hungarians in the United States. Until new immigrants supplanted many of the Hungarians, it was possible to choose among Hungarian restaurants, to buy meat from a Hungarian butcher, to buy Hungarian books, and to attend Hungarian movies. Today New Brunswick has its Hungarian folk dancing parties, its Mindszenty Square, a Hungarian-American museum with changing exhibits by Hungarian artists, Hungarian churches, and an annual Hungarian festival in June.

In addition to its performance at the State Theater, the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s seventh visit to the United States also includes a performance at Carnegie Hall, as well as four venues in Florida. The program focuses on the influence of gypsy folk music on 19th century classical music and includes authentic gypsy folk music, as well as pieces by Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms, and Pablo Sarasate.

“We invited gypsy musicians to play with the Budapest Festival Orchestra,” Fischer says in a telephone interview from Budapest. “Gypsy music is part of the program, both separately, and in combination with the orchestra.” The gypsy musicians are father-and-son violinists Jozsef Lendvay, Sr, and Jozsef Lendvay, Jr, as well as Oszkar Okros, who provides gypsy accompaniment on the cimbalom.

“Joszef Lendvay, Sr, is a folk musician who can be heard in the typical gypsy band,” says Fischer. “Gypsy music is a performing style. Gypsy musicians play by memory. They learn by listening, and do not use music. The tradition is passed on from generation to generation; there are musical dynasties that play a particular instrument. It’s a living folklore tradition.” Fischer is at ease in English. The rare times when he hesitates, he ends up selecting the most vivid word.

“There is a lot of improvisation,” he says. “A gypsy musician would never play a piece as written, but would always add something to make the music a little more spicy. Gypsy playing is very passionate and rich. There are a lot of eastern influences; the gypsies are originally from India. Gypsy music-making was influenced by Turkish music during the Ottoman rule in Hungary.” The dates for Ottoman domination in Hungary are traditionally given as 1526 to 1686, although in some areas, they were present from 1421 to 1718.

“Gypsy violin playing is the most virtuosic violin playing you can hear.” Fischer says. “When I hear gypsy violinists, I hear more vibration than among classical violinists. There are lots of ornaments, added melody notes, little improvised figures around a melody note, and lots of slides. It’s a huge variety of sound.

Fischer says that Jozsef Lendvay, Sr, was trained in an oral tradition and his son had classical training. “In this concert you will hear both the differences and the similarities of the gypsy style and of the classical approach.”

The Lendvays are accompanied by the cimbalom, an instrument related to the hammered dulcimer. First mentioned about 720 A.D., it is often considered the national instrument of Hungary. In 1897 the Budapest Academy of Music added cimbalom to its curriculum.

Conductor Fischer was born in 1951, a middle child in a musical family in Budapest. “Everybody was in the music world,” he says. His father, a violinist, composed and conducted. Eventually, he was responsible for planning programs for the Hungarian Radio Broadcasting System. Fischer’s mother studied singing, and gave up a career to care for her three children. “She was a great music lover,” Fischer says, “and passed on to us her affection for music.” Adam Fischer, Ivan’s brother, elder by two years, is also a conductor with an international career. Primarily an opera conductor, Adam also conducts symphonic music. Their sister is a psychiatrist.

As children, the conductor brothers belonged to the children’s choir of the Budapest National Opera House. They sang as two of the three boys in Mozart’s “Magic Flute.”

Ivan Fischer began his musical studies with piano, violin, and cello. He continued his training in Vienna, where he studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky and early music with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. After winning the Rupert Foundation conducting competition in London in 1976, he became active as a guest conductor of British orchestras. “I won a big conducting competition in London when I was 25,” he told Ivan Hewitt of the British “Telegraph,” “and that launched a big international career for me. But I wasn’t happy. I felt that the symphony orchestra as an artistic medium was losing its purpose.”

Fischer’s founding of the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Hungary in 1983 was his corrective to the failings that bothered him. With the BFO Fischer molded an instrumental ensemble with unique relationships and working habits. “To phrase it in a simple way,” he says, “instead of giving instructions, I wanted to awaken instrumentalists’ own instincts and feelings. In rehearsal I ask: ‘How would you play it?’ ‘What do you think should be happening?’ It’s a matter of working from inside people instead of giving them orders. Musicians love it. Everybody loves to be in contact with their own feelings; it’s more fun than being told what to do.” In order to understand fully what he does in rehearsal, Fischer says, “One should come and hear.”

Even as a guest conductor, Fischer applies his novel rehearsal techniques. “As a guest conductor I use them in a careful and limited version. I do it gradually but I do it as much as possible. With my own orchestra I do it to a much greater extent. We know each other inside out. It’s like a family.”

Fischer has been developing an American branch to his musical family. He made his U.S. debut with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1983. He made his conducting debut with Washington D.C.’s National Symphony Orchestra in 1997, and within a few years became principal guest conductor of the NSO. He is now in the first year of a two-year term as principal conductor of the NSO.

“The National Symphony is pretty far along in [following my ideas about how an orchestra should develop interpretations],” Fischer says. “It’s a sensitive orchestra, keen on making music on a high level. That probably goes back to the days when Rostropovich was music director. I think I found a wonderful collective in the National Symphony.”

Fischer warms to American audiences, and distinguishes between American and European listeners. “In the U. S. people come to concerts who are genuinely interested in music, and eager to hear new things,” he says. “American audiences are open and honest. If they like something, one can notice.

“In Washington we often have question-and-answer sessions after a performance. I’m amazed by the wonderful questions; they go straight to the point; they’re sincere and direct. European audiences may have more musical education than American audiences. But there is a clear openness in the U.S.”

With major commitments in Budapest and in Washington, Fischer is necessarily a transatlantic commuter. “Living in the U.S. and in Hungary is not easy,” he says. “The time change is difficult. The best way around it is to jump into music-making immediately. When I rehearse immediately, I forget about the time change.”

His family in Budapest, as well as his Budapest-based orchestra, makes Fischer’s presence in Hungary indispensable. Heart on his sleeve, he says “I have four children, two young boys, very sweet, seven and four and a half. I try to spend as much time as possible with the children.” Fischer’s two older children are girls, both in their 20s. His wife is flutist Gabriela Pivon, who normally occupies the first-chair seat in the Budapest Festival Orchestra. “This time, she’s not coming,” Fischer says. “She prefers not leaving the children alone for more than week at a time. She’s very caring.”

Ivan Fischer, like his brother, devotes a substantial part of his career to conducting opera. He distinguishes between the two musical forms. “They’re completely different because opera is always a combination of music and theater,” he says. “There’s more teamwork in opera than in symphonic music. With symphonic music, I feel that I have it in my hands and can control the performance. Opera, though, is collaboration. The singers share the responsibility. We pay attention to each other. We discuss things in advance. But in performance I think singers should take the initiative. Singers can act better if they don’t have to look at the conductor all the time.”

Fischer’s balance of convention and modernity is something of a paradox. Nurturer of venerable gypsy elements in the current BFO tour he has, nevertheless, given the orchestra a reputation for performing contemporary music.

Similarly, despite a vast accumulation of frequent flyer miles on that 20th century contraption, the airplane, Fischer chooses methods as old as the quill pen when he turns to composing. “I compose occasionally, when I have time,” he says. “I love to compose. It’s a great pleasure to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and create something new.” I check that I have heard correctly about the paper and pencil. Indeed, Fischer has no interest in computer programs for composing music. Like the gypsies and their established musical customs, Fischer stands by what has stood the test of centuries.

Budapest Festival Orchestra, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Friday, January 23, 8 p.m. Ivan Fischer conducts music of Liszt, Brahms, and De Sarasate. $30 to $75. Pre-performance insight for ticket holders at 7 p.m. 732-246-7469 or www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

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