Ivan Fischer: Plays Well With Children

Ivan Fischer, the NSO's principal guest conductor. Fischer delighted both kids and adults at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater.
Ivan Fischer, the NSO's principal guest conductor. Fischer delighted both kids and adults at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater. (Budapest Festival Orchestra)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

Surprise! The National Symphony Orchestra's newly appointed principal guest conductor, Ivan Fischer, is not only a sensitive and creative musician, but also a very funny man, as he proved yesterday afternoon with a children's concert at the Kennedy Center Family Theater.

Fischer, who served as the host for a program of chamber music played by members of the orchestra, would seem a cross between a neglected Marx Brother, Bert Lahr's Gogo in "Waiting for Godot" and the sort of eccentric teacher one remembers vividly and fondly from elementary school, even 20 or 30 years later. He was informal and extroverted and pleasingly absurdist, winning the delighted laughter of the numerous children, parents and grandparents who filled the hall with his spot-on imitations of oboists, bassists, tuba players and other members of the orchestral menagerie.

In between, he instructed the audience how and when to applaud (bottom line: keep it up until the performer is comfortably onstage and has taken a bow); called on us to imitate the sounds of a cuckoo; and permitted us to clap along softly to the strains of a trio by Darius Milhaud.

Perhaps Fischer's sense of humor should not have come as a shock. Last week, when he conducted the full NSO in the Prelude to Mendelssohn's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," he emphasized a musical "hee-haw" motive that I'd never before noticed in this music but that makes perfect sense in the context of a play where one of the leading characters spends much of his time ensconced in a donkey's head.

The program, which lasted a little less than an hour, was a diverse one, including the Caprice from a solo violin sonata by Locatelli (played with Stravinskian dryness by Laurent Weibel), the C Major and D Minor two-part inventions by J.S. Bach in arrangements for violin and bass, a loping and typically inventive duet for cello and bass by Rossini, four selections from Milhaud's "Suite After Corrette" and an engaging hybrid of "When the Saints Come Marching In" and Handel's "Hallelujah" Chorus for five brass players.

Rumor has it that Fischer may soon be named the sixth music director in the NSO's 76-year history. Nobody doubted that he had the musical chops to take on such a position. But it is reassuring to learn that he has the charm and character to be an ambassador for classical music in our nation's capital, and especially with the audience that ultimately matters the most: the concertgoers of the future.

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