June 13, 2014 – Grounded Leader of the Week – Ivan Fischer

Posted by on Jun 13, 2014

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Ivan Fischer Photo: Marco Borggreve

Key Lesson: Leadership is personal. Don’t be afraid to reveal your personal side, your passions and your values.

This week’s Grounded Leader is Grammy award winning composer and conductor Ivan Fischer . Fischer is the founder of one of the world’s leading orchestras, the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Hungarian by birth, he is a Swiss-and-German educated, multilingual man of the world. In addition to his musical career, Fischer has also taken on a new role – social critic – while continuing to innovate musically and to engage younger audiences and musicians.

Fischer is challenging the music world by re-shaping how orchestras engage and grow both their audiences and their musicians. He is more concerned with the art of making music than maintaining the status quo. In a recent New Yorker interview, Fischer expressed his pessimism regarding the future of the orchestra business, “They have become too big. Like dinosaurs, they must feed themselves all the time. And the real problem is that they are no longer organizations where real music-making happens. Instead, they exist to satisfy others needs. They satisfy a necessity for job security among musicians; they satisfy a kind of career mania for soloists and conductors; and they satisfy a small margin of society that likes to go out and be seen…”

Some of Fischer’s  innovations include breaking down the barriers between musicians and audience members, offering late night concerts for younger fans,  and striving to keep his orchestra small and agile, like “a tiger…or some small mammal.” The orchestra also has less structure. There is no union, for example, so musicians are free to pursue other musical opportunities. This freedom to seek artistic fulfillment means his musicians return “refreshed”.

Fischer is not only shaking up music but politics as well. The BBC recently labeled Fischer one of Europe’s troublemakers. Through his music, Fischer is holding up a mirror to Hungarian society asking them to confront entrenched anti-Semitism, intolerance and prejudice. Concerned with Hungary’s growing nationalist movement and mistrust of Europe and the West, Fischer uses his celebrity to challenge racism and fear of differences. He uses culture to expose racial intolerance.

His one act opera “The Red Heifer”, addresses a shameful episode in Hungarian history and was composed as a rebuke to what he sees as growing acceptance of anti-Semitism in today’s Hungary. The opera premiered in Budapest in October 2013. Speaking to the New York Times, Fischer said, “Culture shouldn’t be interested in day-to-day politics … But I think culture has a strong responsibility to find the essence, the real concealed truth which lies behind the day to day.”

Fischer, who is Jewish, has direct experience with racial intolerance. His father survived the Second World War by posing as the son of non-Jewish friends. The false identity papers, which saved his father from the concentration camps, are displayed in the Fischer family apartment in Budapest (The New Yorker, June 2, 2014, page 37).  While many other Hungarian artists refuse to live in Hungary in protest of  the current government, Fischer is committed to the Budapest Festival Orchestra and spends much of his time in the country.  His wife and two sons, however, now live in Berlin, reflecting how serious he is taking the rise of the far right in Hungarian politics.

Ivan Fischer is our Grounded Leader for his authenticity and his willingness to be true to himself by standing up to intolerance while pushing an industry to reinvent and adapt itself to a changing world.

About The Red Heifer Opera

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