Ivan Fischer: Will the symphony orchestra survive?

The conductor addresses the future of the orchestra in a new talk for the Hanns Eisler Institute.

Ivan is incapable of uttering a dull sentence: ‘It’s an endangered art form and it must reform itself if it does not want to be wiped out.’

‘Our children and grandchildren will feel further and further removed from the generation for which this was the norm.’

‘I want to address the lack of creativity in a symphony orchestra.’

‘In coronavirus, people easily live without it.’

‘How long will politicians finance a non-playing orchestra?’

UPDATE: A different take

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  • One of the most satisfying evenings I ever spent in a concert hall was with Ivan Fisher and the Budapest Festival Orchestra in Carnegie Hall about five years ago. This man knows how to engage an audience.

    • I’ve missed them twice on their North American tours because of ice storms – in 2013 and 2016 in Montreal. I hope I get another chance.

  • Re orchestras I would expect:

    Some will survive

    Some will disappear

    Some will become pick- up, or ad hoc, groups getting together for a few weeks

    You can perhaps predict a few in each category for your country or region but there’s bound to be surprises.

  • The symphony orchestra as a medium for classical music cannot be reformed, in the same way that the violin cannot be reformed without loosing its specific qualities.

    Things of the orchestra which can be reformed, are the programming, which could be more varied and explorative, and its funding, which should be integrated in the normal and structural state funding.

    Important is a better understanding of what ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ mean, which is an educational issue. Modernity is what is available and accessible, and progress has only meaning when it means improvement. Also there should be a better understanding of what classical music actually is, its timeless and ever modern qualities because of based upon universal human needs, which are of psychological nature and not a material nature.

    Fischer falls into the trap of thinking that ‘our language’, i.e. the ‘language’ of ‘our time’, is the white noise of over-availability, without any distinctions, and with a democracy meaning equality. A form of high art is the result of hierarchical thinking, in the sense of that there are things that are better than other things, that there are distinctions in terms of intrinsic importance.

    • Your comments regarding reform with programming and funding is agreeable but arguably, progress can result through modernity. The intention is to break the elitist, old-fashioned attitude/definition of the symphonic orchestra. The idea is to modernize the orchestra today but not rid it of the origin of its classical musical essence (as he stated). It is not a democracy meaning equality as you state but an effort to actually understand the form of “high art” to those who have been, understandably, not part of the “CLUB” of the hierarchy.

  • I would add that relativism – the idea that the Beatles are as good as Beethoven – is one reason for the decline in the favour of the symphony orchestra. As the media know all to well, a vast part of the public will always opt for the easy choice.

    • Relatavism has been around a heck of a lot longer than classical music!

      There is a commonly held belief by many Classical musicians that what classical music or orchestras offer is of absolute value, and ‘should’ somehow be immune to the dynamic changes the world presents.
      Like Cnut, you may as well order the tide to obey you.

      A more reasonable expectation of the world might yield better odds for survival.

      • Seems reasonable on the surface. But if the tide is simply followed, many things that are important to humanity would disappear, like a collective but unconscious suicide. History is not the result of passivity but of choices. So, a comment like this one is comparable to the ideas of ‘posthumanism’ which envisages the creation of an entirely new human race, result of fusions between biology and IT, so that all of the ‘defective past’ can be left behind once and for all. It is all the result of ignorance about the concept of progress and modernity, and of the human condition.

  • As long as there are jet-setting itinerant conductors with dollar signs in their eyes, then yes, I agree with the headline. The days of the orchestra are numbered. Yes, I’m looking at YOU Fischer.

    **globalism has DAMAGED our art**

    • Wrong. Globalism is what made classical music possible.
      Composers, their techniques and styles, instrument making techniques, etc. etc.
      All of that spread around the world through trade and international exchange.
      And the US of A is the first country in the history of mankind, that was only created through: you name it: globalism. It‘s literally built on the shoulders of people from all continents.
      How ironic you condemn your own very foundation.

    • Fischer devotes a far larger percentage of his time to the BFO than most music directors of our day; he’s far less itinerant than most.

      Globalism has been around since before Israel traded with Sheba, and many of the ancient Greek musical modes came from Asia.

  • This seems to fit well here.
    From Christian Tetzlaff.
    July 2020

    “In these times it is important to remind ourselves that we are all made of the same stuff. As the world drives us all apart as quickly as possible, even if we vote for completely different parties, at a good concert, everyone can sit there and say, ​‘I was touched in my soul. Everyone else in the row next to me is also struggling in this life, trying to find love and fulfillment.’ This is more crucial than ever – to say that we belong together, no matter what our circumstances and political opinions.

    Only classical music can do this. I love pop music, but at a pop concert, the stars on stage are not shy about promoting themselves. They bring the audience together as a crowd, and that is wonderful, but a late Beethoven quartet, Schubert song or Brahms symphony doesn’t numb or overwhelm you. It encourages a deep enquiry from each member of the audience.

    Our role is to be the mediator, to talk about Brahms, to be part of a performance and share it with the audience. When a player goes on stage and says, ​‘Look at me, I do this and I do that,’ they are in the way of the music. For example, in the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto, the solo violin accompanies the orchestra for ten minutes, but if everyone is listening to the accompanying figures of the soloist, the tail is wagging the dog.

    We should be interpreters of great music and create emotional gatherings with the audience, instead of using them to promote ourselves – that’s how to protect music in the lives of people.

    It’s always been like this. Once when Schumann went to hear Liszt perform, he wrote a letter to Clara, describing how Liszt had played phenomenally, women were lying at his feet and he looked magnificent in his long robe. Then he wrote, ​‘But we, Clara, know what real music is about.’ Schumann means that real music has a humble and devotional aspect to it, and that’s the attitude I seek.

    It’s the measure of the player. I know that in the real world there must be advertising and something to draw people’s interest into the concert hall, so it’s not simple, but it will help if more promoters and audience members look for something that’s important and not superficial.

    Violinists and their followers are always proud when someone says, ​‘I heard one note and knew it was them,’ but that’s a double-edged compliment, because it means that violinist is playing themselves. Of course, there is always a personal sound that we recognize, but factors such as vibrato and bowing should be completely different whatever story you are telling. It’s like with a good actor: you recognize their face, but their acting is different for whatever role they’re playing.

    When I compare my playing now to when I was younger, I notice that I’ve gained freedom in communicating. This isn’t about saying, ​‘Today I will play this movement really fast or slow or loud or soft.’ It’s about, ​‘How do I phrase this melody? Do I give it more pain or hope or restraint?’ This freedom has grown every decade for me.

    When you’re 25, you can’t decide how to be – it’s a competitive world, unfortunately, and there are many different players. It’s wonderful to be on the other side now, knowing exactly where I belong, enjoying playing and not having to fight any more. The only advice I can offer is that you are safe as long as your musical wishes and the depth of your music are what make you perform. Things might be slower in the beginning than if you made a big splash, but they might last longer, because with the violin, especially, people burn fast and famous. It’s difficult to sustain. It’s important to believe in the substance of music and not just in violin playing. It’s also more fun.”
    — Christian Tetzlaff, July 2020

    • Agreed; but let’s not forget that Liszt’s rock-star phase lasted only 8 years, and the great majority of his life is characterized by a humble and devotional attitude to music. And even during his Glanzzeit, he served his art by, for instance, bringing the piano music of Schubert out of complete obscurity (as Schumann did with the Schubert 9th).

      • Indeed, and I think he was the first pianist who played Beethoven sonatas in public recitals as they were written, without embellishments, and as a whole: uninterrupted, all parts in a row.

    • All very true. But why are there, in the classical music world, so many:

      a) people who are not interested in music (seen a banker who’s not interested in money?)

      b) performers who are convinced that music exists for them and not the other way around

      c) music agencies who think they are a grocer’s shop

      d) players playing an instrument with virtuosity but without any musicality (mostly they end-up in sound art groups or HIP ensembles)

      e) psychologically-challenged people who imagine to be a stage director and trying to ruin every opera put into their hands by equally handicapped staff

      f) neurologically-flawed people imagining to be a composer and using IT to produce sound art

      g) civil servants and funding bodies supporting the charlatanerie of f)

      h) cellists refusing to tune their instruments

      i) sopranos using their performances to show-off their bright-red gala dress and cleavage

      j) etc. etc…..

      ???

      Answer: the art form combines utter subjectivity with theatricals, offering a broad range of charlatanerie for people who should not be there.

  • I am baffled by the references early in this interview to a “narrow range of repertoire” as defined by Haydn on one end and Messiaen on the other. Does anyone – informed or not – listen to the “The Hen” and Turangalîla and say: “Ah, the same sort of thing”?

    • Excellent comment, Arthur. Part of the problem is orchestras have ceded the early classical stuff to the “original instrument” crowd, so we rarely play Haydn or Bach any more, and of course an appreciation for both is fundamental to the history of orchestral music. In that sense, we’ve been responsible for narrowing the boundaries of what our audience hears, so that’s on us. (And conductors who pick repertoire they know will sell tickets, and thus raise their fees!)

  • One of the strangest conductors I EVER worked for. He was from Planet X. I wholeheartedly disagree with him. Classical music will draw people back into our auditoriums in bigger numbers than before when this is all over. With its diversity, richness, beauty, profundity and slices of human creativity, of human genius, music will reappear again like a fresh smelling flower.

  • If consumption is all online, how many orchestras do we actually need?

    The only groups that have the online thing down are the Berlin Phil and the MET Opera.

    The rest float something on their web sites but God only knows who actually visits them and stays long enough to be engaged.

    Sorry folks but 2022 is going to look very different than 2020. At least for the the folks that are still alive.

  • On MWF the sky is falling; on TTS it isn’t. Chicken Little rules, but the Little Red Hen will just do it herself. Fiduciaries oracularly intone: Up, Down, Up, Down, look wise, and take their commission. Our 200 years of orchestral concerts won’t vanish though some orcheestras may among the five majors in London, eight in Tokyo, three Berlin opera houses, &tc.

    Corraggio, Maestro. Remember old panics, Blizes, sieges, vrusadesplagues, wars, fires. The great body of orchestral music endures; orchestras will be found to give it life. Have a little more confidence. Have more bowel. When the going gets tough, you know the rest. All that is hard is done alone — Hermann Hesse.

    These are the rainy days we saved for. God forbid they should be the seven lean years, hutthey too were survivable. Crack open those tips jars and endowment funds. Ask players fir ideas, satellite chamber music venues, school concerts, churches, clubs. Start a cycle of Hovhanessarian symphonies, or Haydn Pettersen, Havergail Brian, Leif Siegerstam, or a History of Music with Mehul, Magnard, Gluck. Gretry, Gossec, Raff, Spohr, Hans Rott, Shostakovich, Franz Schmidt, Bruckner’s Successors, Young Peoople’s programs, early evening after-work oncerts for millenials working near halls, you name it.

    Innovate, adapt, evolve, or mutate. It isn’t survival of the fattest but something else. Remember what you did in WWII, the Thirty Years War, the Spanish Succession. Think what pop rock hip hop throat burping or silent songs are going through.

  • I recommend listening to Maestro Fischer’s substantial interview, and not merely the commentary on it. He proposes some promising openings out of the dead end we are in.

  • I don’t know why anyone would dismiss this.

    Pre-COVID, orchestras in the U.S. were already in decline. The League of American Orchestras has reams of data showing bleak facts, such as: 1) Since 2013, orchestras get more revenue from donations than ticket sales; 2) Attendance is down; 3) The cost to fill a seat has been rising because fewer people are subscribing and instead buying single tickets; and 4) Many of the nation’s top orchestras have had lockouts and strikes in the last decade.

    Something is deeply wrong, and it’s wrong with almost every orchestra.

    I don’t know what the solutions are, but incremental ones aren’t going to reverse this downward trend.

  • Worth repeating: “Art is easy. Life is difficult.” –Ferenc Liszt, who spoke no Hungarian. I recall Johnwas struck by this saying first time around.

    His student Amy Fay’s classic book “Music Study in Germany, incluies her time with Carl Taussig” and others, describing Liszt’s group teaching methods in Weimar in detail.

    He was complex. By the end his stimuli ran to a flagon of brandy, contributing to his dropsy and death at 75 eurng the 1886 festival, neglect and mistrearment by his daughter Cosima, Wagner’s widow, and hasty burial on the grounds of Wahnfried near Wagner’s dogs; it can still be seen there, at least as I did in `954 . His religious exertions in Rome as the cassocked Abbe Liszt fruitlessly seeking an annulment for the princess he then lived with are revealing, as is the mixed lot of his religious music.

  • With a few exceptions regarding programming becoming more innovative, I have noted a lot of comments above about relatively general points rather than referring specifically to those made by Maestro Fischer. That said, I am only about half way through his thoughts and perhaps I should wait until the end before commenting. But I have already heard some interesting ideas – even though I may not agree with them.

    He talks about Boulez’ idea of a pool of musicians and also of introducing new instruments. He accepts the latter is not a new idea but I have not yet come across his ideas for making a pool of musicians work financially.

    As a former orchestra manager, I am only too aware of the financial tightrope most managers must traverse. I successfully scheduled programming with Indian instruments and Chinese instruments. This can work well. But I am really curious to find out how a pool in which some perform and others do not can work unless a reasonable proportion are engaged on freelance contracts with some guarantee of minimum incomes. He suggests an electric guitar might be in the pool. Presumably the player would be freelance and be able to take other work. But what if a composer includes that instrument in a new work and when it is rescheduled the musician already has a contract for a few month’s lucrative work on a Broadway show?

    His thoughts on dealing with musicians’ unions to persuade them to accept new work practices surely has to be more than fanciful. Only if the musicians themselves as a body push the unions to accept does it have the remotest chance of working.

    Equally regarding education, he stresses its importance and then talks about Ernest Fleischmann’s idea that each musician should devote 10% of his time to teaching. But surely this refers to the teaching of instruments. What is surely needed is far more general music education of the type that is increasingly being downgraded if not altogether dropped from school curricula. Not just the sol fa and in the boring way I was taught during my time at school. Music can and should be a fascinating subject. But how often is it taught in a way that sparks the imagination?

    In an age where the range of leisure activities is in the stratosphere compared even to 50 years ago, and when a great deal of the orchestral repertoire is already available on YouTube, CDs, DVDs and streaming, how can the symphony orchestra remain alive and relevant if most in a community have no interest in attending? In the talk, I haven’t yet heard a truly persuasive argument – but I shall continue to listen with much interest.

    • Agreed with most of this.

      I stopped listening to maestro F after a while because of his crazy and impractical ideas.

      It is often quite embarrassing to hear musicians without an intellectual endowment talk about their profession. They mean well but obvioulsy they should keep to their performing.

    • One way the “pool” could function would be to provide players for two or more groups at different locations on the same night.

  • I don’t know how many orchestras do this, but our local symphony has a very bad programming habit. The concert always begins with a modern work (in way too many instances written by a composer from the same country as the conductor). If the work is short, the time before intermission is filled with commentary by the conductor, who is in love with the sound of his voice and who, like many a preacher, misses an awful lot of good chances to quit. After intermission comes the soloist to play the music that most of the audience actually came to hear. The idea seems to be that the hearers must endure torture before they are rewarded with beauty, just as a child must eat his vegetables before being rewarded with dessert.

    I can’t count the number of concerts I have attended where the good wives have had enough after the first half, and have insisted that we repair to our favorite restaurant to recover from the aural assault we have endured. This has meant that I have missed the best part of the program. I would challenge our symphony to play the popular works first, making it possible for those who need to leave early to hear them, and to play the esoteric, modern works after intermission. The younger types who wish to hear such creations will be hardly inconvenienced, and perhaps performing atonal abstractions to a nearly empty hall might result in a dose of reality for the programmers.

    A last hint for conductors: Shut up and play!

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