The Budapest Festival Orchestra played Beethoven at Lincoln Center this week, the First and Fifth Symphonies bookending the Fourth Piano Concerto on Sunday, and the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies on Monday. The standing ovations began on Sunday: Richard Goode gave a commanding performance; students from Julliard and Bard showed up onstage, unexpectedly, for the Fifth Symphony’s finale.
I bought my tickets months ago, well before the presidential election. But the election followed me into the hall. Throughout the interval on Monday night, an elderly couple discussed the day’s headlines in despairing terms. A few minutes earlier, two hundred rabbis and cantors had marched past Lincoln Center, on their way from 88th and Broadway to the Trump International Hotel on Columbus Circle, protesting against the president’s ban on Muslim refugees.
Then the lights dimmed and the orchestra started again.
Fischer’s staging of the final movement of the Ninth Symphony was startling. A man – curly haired, with wire-rimmed glasses – who’d been sitting a few rows behind me was standing now, singing, and when I looked around the hall I saw dozens of others (members of the Concert Chorale of New York, it turned out) scattered through the audience, singing along while an English translation of Beethoven’s adaptation of Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy’ appeared on a scrim hanging high up over the stage: ‘You millions, I embrace you/This kiss is for all the world!’
David Bryan is 44 years old. He’s been singing with the Concert Chorale for 14 years but also performs ‘opera, oratorio, musical theatre, folk, bluegrass, contemporary Christian, barbershop, even rap’. (He launched his current project, a Grateful Dead tribute, in a Park Avenue church; that must be some sort of first.) He told me he’s performed at Lincoln Center hundreds of times, though always from the stage. When he’d learned about Fischer’s plan in December, he’d imagined it would take the form of a flash mob. Sitting in the audience on Monday, he sensed the work shift:
In the fourth movement, in the dialogue between the cello/double bass and the rest of the orchestra, which then gives way to that beautiful melody and countermelodies so familiar to most of the Western world, the poetry of the text hit me pretty hard … no matter what’s happening out in the world, and regardless of individual political persuasions, in that moment people can’t be sitting there fuming about politics … And, as I sat there, I wondered: all of these people with all the power and money and control … have they ever performed Beethoven’s Ninth? … I just don’t see how you could bomb people overseas one day and then sit on a stage the next with an instrument, performing such a cathartic piece of music. I believe music is the answer to all of the conflict the world is in right now. It always has been.
If only that were true. Afterwards, on the subway down to 42nd Street, I saw concertgoers clutching their programmes, trying to hold on to the moment. Working in today’s Hungary, Fischer and the BFO know their way around a political statement, and as statements go, this one was subtle and powerful. It stayed with me all the way to my apartment in Queens, where I looked at the news and saw that several rabbis who’d marched that night had staged a sit-down in the street in front of Trump’s tower. Eighteen of them had been arrested, handcuffed in their prayer shawls, and carted away.