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Budapest Festival Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, 1/20/13

The Budapest Festival Orchestra—30 years old this year and still led by its ebullient co-founder, Ivan Fischer—is Hungary's leading cultural export and one of the most celebrated orchestras in the world. They got that way not through strict adherence to established performance practice, but by taking a fresh approach to hidebound classics while championing other works long since forgotten. Not to mention, they like to have fun as well.

Case in point: At Avery Fisher Hall last Sunday, the BFO had already launched into Shostakovich's Jazz Suite No. 2 (1950) when Fischer bounded onstage, conducting as he made his way to the podium. (When was the last time you saw that at a "classical" concert?) After the crowd calmed down, we were treated to a mixture of Straussian marches, polkas, and waltzes—a far cry from the Shostakovich of bombastic symphonies and somber string quartets. Perfect way to start a Sunday afternoon.

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Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman—a last minute replacement for Janine Jansen—joined the BFO for Bernstein's Serenade (1954), a concerto in five movements for strings and percussion, inspired by Plato's Symposium. Ferschtman had a bit of a rough start in the opening Allegro marcato, but eventually recoverd to mirror Fischer's impassioned reading of Bernstein's jazz-inflected score: an affectionate tribute to Lenny, who, of course, once stood on the very same podium. 

After intermission, the orchestra waited until the audience was seated before coming in all at once, creating an air of excitement and anticipation. (Why can't American orchestras ever do this?) Then, for the next hour, Fischer led them—sans score—in a rare performance of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2. Rachmaninoff wrote this symphony in Dresden, where he had moved in the winter of 1906 to escape his increasingly demanding schedule as both conductor and pianist.

The music was lush and romantic, with occasionally spine-tingling sonorities. It was also completely retrograde, considering that it was written in the same year that Mahler was composing his late symphonies and Schoenberg was pushing the boundaries of tonality. As fine as the BFO's playing was, I couldn't help but wonder: Where was the piano? 

After a long, rousing ovation, Fischer finally relented Leroy Anderson's Blue Tango (1951), a light orchestral work that used to be played by the Boston Pops. Warm and friendly, with a bit of an edge to it—just what you would expect from a band of Hungarians. 

Budapest Festival Orchestra, Avery Fisher Hall, 1/20/13

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