“Tonight the audience will be asked to choose what they would like to hear played from the range of possible options in the orchestra’s capacious music library.” (Proms Prospectus)
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: 2 September, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Rarely, if ever, has there been a Prom without a programme in advance; very rare in British concert life is that the case but, on occasion, in Budapest, it has become a regular feature of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Iván Fischer’s seasons, whether in their ‘surprise’ concerts (the works only announced at the event) and at ‘audience choice’ presentations. It was the latter that Fischer and his BFO brought to the Royal Albert Hall for a late-night appearance and their second Prom of the evening. There had been no clue in the Proms Prospectus or on the website about how the audience would choose the music … so as we entered the Hall we were each given a handsomely printed raffle ticket (mine was numbered 1843) and asked to appraise the 285 listed pieces printed in the programme and decide – if you were lucky in the ballot – what piece you would request.
Fischer explained further as he introduced the BFO’s tuba-player who walked into the audience with all the raffle stubs in the bell of his instrument. People were randomly asked to choose a number. Once the holders of each had been identified they were asked to shout out their choice of music, and the winner was adjudged by acclamation. Fischer, who arbitrated, swiped away those that fell at the first fence, and sometimes ask for a re-vote. In essence it was like the American presidential election; we had primaries where the choice was delimited, and a final vote to decide the winner. It just didn’t last 18 months. I’ve heard comment that it sounded chaotic and long-winded on the Radio 3 broadcast, but following the tuba around the hall, seeing where the winners were located and listening for their choices was great fun. When no-one owned-up to a raffle ticket Fischer threw a rabbit soft-toy into the Arena: whoever caught it could make a choice.
The selection was extraordinary including thirty-eight symphonies, split into movements: from the first eight by Beethoven, three of Brahms’s, the first and third movements of Bruckner’s 7, the last three of Dvořák’s, several by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, from Mahler were the inner movements of No.1 (heard earlier in the evening), the Adagietto from No.5 and all four of No.6 (no sight of a hammer though), Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’, Prokofiev’s ‘Classical’, Rachmaninov 2, Schumann’s ‘Rhenish’ and Tchaikovsky 4 and 5. Also sprach Zarathustra was there (but the organ was switched ‘off’) as was The Rite of Spring … four works by Leroy Anderson, nine excerpts from Bach, Bottesini’s Gran duo concertante, Grigoras, Dinicu’s Hora staccato, Elgar’s Serenade for Strings and Leó Weiner’s Serenade. None of these got chosen.
The first choice was between Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No.1 and Wagner’s Meistersinger Prelude and, the winner, Kodály’s Dances of Galánta (more idiomatically performed than by Jurowski and the LPO earlier this season). The second choice involved the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony – dismissed immediately! – and a draw between Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances (“these are too easy for us”, Fischer said) and Josef Strauss’s Music of the Spheres waltz. We got both. The third was between Mahler’s Adagietto, Ravel’s Boléro (“it’s long, so we would only play a bit” – but the same length as Galánta) and, the winner, the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla. The final choice saw a four-way split (the rabbit thrown into the arena unnecessary) between Leroy Anderson’s Plink, Plank, Plonk, Berlioz’s Hungarian March, and a final showdown between Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and Stravinsky’s Tango. Miraculously, Stravinsky won; but, once that had been played, Fischer suggested that the final work would be the Berlioz.
After our choices and while the hard-working librarian (regrettably not name-checked in the programme) was retrieving the music, we had musical interludes. There was some Transylvanian folk-music, Bartók violin Duos, some Telemann, body-popping percussionists, a brass chorale and a didgeridoo. Fischer likened the effect to a rehearsed reading of a play, and that things could go wrong. But this is the Budapest Festival Orchestra (now playing in mufti) and the pieces by Kodály and Bartók were home runs. The performances were hugely enjoyable, making up in their sweep for any lack of finesse. This concert immediately seemed to gain classic status and embodied Henry Wood’s vision for the Proms.