Monday, December 15, 2014

Budapest Festival Orchestra

Saturday night (November 29) was an experience that I will never forget. Dan and I went with three other Fulbrighters to see the Budapest Festival Orchestra.  This was not the typical concert.  It was a Saturday night at 11:30pm.  Rather than a concert hall, the performance was in a place called Millenáris Theatrum.  It was more like an open stage theater which would be particularly well suited for a modern dance performance. Seating was first come first serve. The most popular choice were the bean bags spread across the floor and throughout the orchestra. People were sitting in the middle of the orchestra itself! By the time we arrived, all of the bean bags were taken so we sat in the rows of seats found on both ends of the room. We ended up being behind the orchestra. The conductor was Robin Ticciati and the program was Maurice Ravel: Valses nobles et sentimentales and Claude Debussy: La mer.  One of the benefits from sitting behind the orchestra was seeing the conductor's face.  I have never heard of Robin Ticciati before but I enjoyed his style and facial expressions. As someone who is usually in the orchestra, I have seen a wide variety of conductors and I think Mr. Ticciati's style worked well.

The atmosphere was very casual. The audience and the orchestra were wearing street clothes.  In the lobby, you could purchase drinks and snacks to bring into the concert with you. Many people were drinking wine in plastic cups and we saw a couple of people eating sandwiches.

I am glad that I went to this concert because it has made me reconsider my thoughts as both a performer and an audience member. I realize that every business field looks for innovation to keep promoting their product.  In some of my music classes, we have discussed the routes some orchestras are choosing to take.  The Budapest Festival Orchestra is experimenting with unconventional time and setting, and it is working for them. The theater was packed with people. It was also perhaps the youngest audience I have seen at a concert (not including children's concerts). Most everyone around us seemed to be in the 18-30 age group.  They also used an unconventional seating arrangement and tickets.  Giving people a chance to sit anywhere they like offers new sound experiences and contact with the performers. It breaks down the audience/performer divide.  They also broke down any sort of audience divide by pricing all tickets at 1500 HUF (about $6).

The concert was a success, but every concert in the evolution of orchestra performances has both pros and cons.  This concert was sold out to a very young crowd. I cannot think of any concert that I've seen in the US that was sold out or had a young audience. Clearly the Budapest Festival Orchestra is doing something right. On the other hand, I question the means that led to this success because I know that I was distracted through most of the concert. The distractions ranged from the sound of bean bags rustling to seeing a couple making out. People were drinking, whispering, sleeping, and taking photos with their phones. Just the fact that the orchestra was wearing street clothes made me feel like I was sitting in on a rehearsal.  I hate to say that I went to a concert and I can't remember the music, but that's almost how I feel.  Luckily, the value of the performance do not rest solely on my experience or opinion.

Let me make it clear that the music was great. The orchestra played extremely well. In particular, I recall the sound of the English horn. I'm inclined to focus my attention on the brass instruments so I was pleasantly surprised to be caught off guard by the beautiful tone of the English horn player. On a side note, here in Hungary the programs do not include a personnel list. I cannot tell you who was playing the English horn, only that his or her tone was heavenly.

Yet the question remains in my mind, how can we be innovative with our promotion and performance of instrumental music? The answer is something that we are still seeking through trial and error. My suggestion is that we work on strengthening our product rather than placing it in a new container or giving it a fresh coat of paint. I hope our goal as a music community is to continue to show that our art is culturally relevant, historically important, aesthetically pleasing, emotionally engaging, and intellectually sufficient by always performing with the utmost intention, professionalism, and unity of heart and mind. Let's move people with our music! The music is, and always should be, more powerful than location, attire, refreshments, and price. Let's keep it that way.

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