Part 10: A formal introduction

The Budapest Festival Orchestra has been on Tristan Jakob-Hoff's must-hear list for years, so he grabbed the chance to see it at this year's Proms

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra (BFO) and I have never been formally introduced. We’ve seen each other around at parties and music festivals over the years, naturally, but every time I’ve been about to wander over and say, 'hey, how’s it going,' something else has caught my attention and the BFO has promptly disappeared. It’s happened so many times now that I had been beginning to wonder whether the orchestra was trying to avoid me.
 
It hasn’t helped that every year the BFO’s reputation seems to get more and more illustrious – the orchestra is now mentioned alongside such long-standing luminaries as the Staatskapelle Dresden and Boston Symphony Orchestra. Those orchestras have 461 and 128 years of experience respectively, versus the BFO whose birthday cake featured a mere 26 candles this year.

 



So I was determined to make its acquaintance finally on Tuesday night. It turned out we were both attending the same concert – a happy coincidence I was not going to let pass me by. I rushed down to the Royal Albert Hall after work, hoping I might arrive early enough to have some quiet one-to-one time with the orchestra before it got swamped with fans. In the event I was far too late: by the time I arrived, there were already another 5,500 people waiting to meet it. The Royal Albert Hall could scarcely contain them all.

The orchestra looked stunning of course, immaculately dressed in black and accompanied by a glamorous companion on either side. Hanging from its left arm was conductor and minder Iván Fischer, looking suspiciously like Valery Gergiev would if the latter ever shaved; while on the right was up-and-coming superstar violinist Leonidas Kavakos. Kavakos has clearly had a makeover recently – he has wisely lost the Yanni-style moustache he used to sport a few years ago, replacing it with a très Noughties stubble-beard, which has increased his marketability by about 45%.

As far as I could tell, they were there for the same reason everyone else was – to take part in the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s mad Ukulele-a-Thon at 10pm. But in the meantime they were kind enough to serenade us with a spot of music. Kavakos played Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with a preternatural mixture of warmth, precision and dirt-under-the-nails earthiness. Fischer then led the orchestra in Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony, which was as Brahmsian as you like, particularly in the charming intermezzo-like middle movements, and immaculately played. We were even treated to an encore in which – get this – the BFO actually sang (it was Strauss’s Peasant Polka).

So finally I had managed to hear this superb orchestra live. I hoped I might get the chance to catch up with it afterwards, perhaps buy it a drink or two, but sadly it was not to be. Last I saw, the BFO was signing autographs and preparing to join in the ukulele festivities. And then it was gone, disappearing back into the Royal Albert Hall, and then off into the night, trailing admirers behind it.

 
 
Tristan Jakob-Hoff is a freelance music writer, critic, and a  contributor to The Guardian. He has been a fervent Prommer for the last six years, and can be found every summer in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall arena, looking slightly faint...
 
Main image: Chris Christodoulou