The rejuvenation of Budapest

Hungary's capital breaking away from 'historical tourism' image.

budapest 248.88 (photo credit: Shira Teger)
budapest 248.88
(photo credit: Shira Teger)
BUDAPEST - Nobody wants to be left behind. In Israel, we like to pride ourselves on our abilities to keep up with the pack, marrying modernity to an ancient land. For example, at Jerusalem's Tower of David, the current Nights Spectacular display combines sounds and lights against the backdrop of a 2,000-year-old citadel. And at the Dead Sea fortress of Masada, an audio-visual show played against the side of the mountain tells the dramatic story of the siege that ended Jewish habitation on the plateau. We try to emphasize to tourists that we have entered the 21st century, even while safeguarding the importance of historical sites. And a bit farther east, Budapest is making a similar effort. Hungary's capital has traditionally been known for its castles, battles and beautiful architecture. Visitors explore historical sites along the Danube, they visit the thermal spas that people have been visiting for hundreds of years and they feast on paprika-infused food. To unwind, the Opera House and National Museum have traditionally been popular choices. But recently, the city has been shifting to more experimental grounds. Contemporary art is very "in," as are avant garde types of performances. Run-down areas are finding new life while preserving the history hidden beside the bullet holes left from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Local dancers, musicians and filmmakers are breaching the borders and incorporating outside influences in their work. Luckily, the municipality is supporting the rebirth. On a recent trip to the city, I explored this rejuvenating side of town. Perhaps Budapest's most impressive foray into the 21st century is The Palace of Arts, affectionately referred to as MUPA (Muveszetek Palotaja). Opened in early 2005 on the banks of the Danube in the 9th District, on land originally slated to host the World Exhibition, it is comprised of the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall, the Festival Theater, the Ludwig Museum Contemporary Art Gallery, the Bohemian Restaurant, gift shops and a cafe. It also hosts classical music enrichment programs for babies and children. Programming aside (though it is very much central to MUPA), the building is fantastic. Even though the outside looks as if construction may not yet be complete (it is), it does light up in changing colors each night. But the inside is breathtaking (and well-heated, like most of Budapest). The walls, accents and floors are made of wood or wood veneer. The ceilings are high and escalators criss-cross the multiple-storied building in an attractive and intriguing way. Each of the theaters is a self-contained structure, so bits of each (done in wooden panels) bulge out into the main spaces, almost like the hull of a ship. Inside the theaters, the view is no less impressive. The Concert Hall seats 1,700 people in its light wood atmosphere. The floors are already a bit pockmarked from high heels - not unattractively, just a testament to the throngs that come through there each evening. The walls on the upper levels toward the front of the hall boast 56 brightly colored, 3-8 ton concrete doors that open into reverberation chambers, which are adjusted for each show to provide optimal sound. And if the doors aren't enough, there are also black curtains and a massive three-piece, 54-ton wooden canopy that can be utilized to make sure both audience and orchestra hear the performance as it is supposed to be heard. And crowning it all is a 6,804-pipe organ perched above the stage, its copper-colored tubes reflecting out on the hall. (MUPA is also temporarily housing a 1,780-year-old, 52-pipe water organ, the oldest in the world.) The Concert Hall is used mostly for classical music, as its physical characteristics would indicate. The smaller 450-seat Festival Theater has a much more intimate feel, also done in a wood pattern with an almost jungle-like look; though it lacks the canopy and acoustic chambers, it, too, was designed to best serve both audience and performer through an adjustable ceiling and stage, which is used mostly for dance, chamber operas, jazz concerts and plays. In its effort to bring culture to the masses, MUPA reserves about 140 standing-room-only tickets for students for one euro a piece. Even full-price tickets to events tend to be rather affordable, running about 10 - 20 euros a person, though big names will draw prices closer to 50 euros. At home in MUPA are the National Dance Theater (which has two other venues as well), the Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra, the 80-member oratory Choir and 13,000-piece Music Library. MUPA also has its own mastering and video studios, which it uses to record its performances. They include a range of productions, from the London Philharmonic Orchestra's rendition of Haydn's "The Creation," conducted by Adam Fischer, to Tan Lihua conducting the Peking Symphony Orchestra; and from Purcell's "The Fairy Queen" to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." The Hungarian-born Fischer even offered a four-day, musically concentrated version of Wagner's "The Ring," mixing prerecorded video scenes with the live singers and actors (the concert hall does not offer the staging options of a full-fledged theater). "We do something new here," Fischer explained. "This is the opera of the future." He pointed out that the mix of technology with classics is intriguing enough to involve the youth. "Those who... don't know the opera at all sat here and weren't bored." And the audience did not seem bored at the staging of Leonard Bernstein's Mass, directed by Gyorgy Bohm, when I was there. The strange interpretation involved a plastic-covered stage, plastic-covered singers and a large concrete piece with a light-up cross. Bohm, who is also the cynical judge on Hungary's version of "Dancing with the Stars," lamented the fact that while he was given a lot of freedom at MUPA, he wasn't allowed to bring in the mud he wanted. Lest one think MUPA is all hi-tech and the nearly 7,000 pipes in the Concert Hall are neglected, MUPA offers a range of organ recitals as well. Jazz plays a fair part in the MUPA's programming, with local and international stars coming through. The Hungarian National Ballet puts on "Anna Karenina" while the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble performs "Sun Legend" (which I saw and found more impressive than expected). And if one cultural event a night isn't enough, ticket holders for MUPA performances also get entry to the Ludwig Museum anytime from when they purchase the ticket until the day of the performance. One floor of the museum's permanent exhibits houses pieces by Picasso alongside American pop art and Hungarian works, the earliest from the 1950s. Two floors of temporary exhibits offer new shows every few months; during my visit, there was a large showing of drawings by the late Keith Haring and an "Eco-logic: Philosophy in the landscape" transdisciplinary exhibition of works by Agnes Denes. But the contemporary Hungarian art scene by no means ends at MUPA or the Ludwig Museum. On a walking tour of Budapest's 8th District, we visited another contemporary art spot: the Molnar Ani Gallery. The small space is housed in an old apartment building. To reach it, one must go up a few flights of stairs and walk along a balcony that skirts the courtyard below. Molnar opened about a year and a half ago, in order to help promising young artists. On display are colorful sculptures and paintings, all for purchase. But the seriously contemporary scene is at Trafo. When it opened 10 years ago, it was the first international venue for contemporary arts - a joint venture between Switzerland and Hungary - and focused on young artists (as it still does). It began in the early 1990s when a French anarchist group arrived in Budapest, searching for an empty building in which to put on an art festival. The abandoned industrial building was eventually closed down, but then the municipality bought it to serve as a space for contemporary culture. As homage to the structure's original purpose, the name "trafo" (transformer) was given to the new center; it conveniently serves as a metaphor for the institution's aim. Trafo never hosts mainstream performances or exhibits, although it did just begin an ancient arts program. But the main offerings at Trafo include music, dance, film and theater. The best part: Ticket prices are very affordable, ranging from around 4.50 euros to 10 euros. At home both at Trafo and at MUPA is Yvette Bozsik, the founder of the independent Compagnie Yvette Bozsik, a big name in the Hungarian contemporary dance scene. Though classically trained, the 40-year-old Bozsik felt a need to express more than ballet would allow. She has been called "an artist in the true tradition of the late 20th century avant garde" and "sensual, sculptural, startlingly original, mind-blowing, hypnotic, scandalously erotic, tantalizing and not least unforgettable." She has won prestigious awards in both Hungary and internationally and now directs theater and choreographs dance, opera and children's theater. Perhaps more celebrated than Bozsik and also associated with Trafo is Kornel Mundruczo, a theater and film director who has won numerous international awards, most notable of which was the FIPRESCI Prize at Cannes this year for his film "Delta." That movie was also nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes. Though Mundruczo sticks to a Hungarian style of directing, using long shots and slow action, he is a contemporary director who likes to make his works as "real" as possible, keeping his productions as minimalistic as he can. While all of this contemporary arts scene sounds very, well, contemporary, the truth is that Budapest was never that far behind. A tour of the city with open eyes will turn up all sorts of Art Nouveau buildings - some with the strangest of uses. For instance, the Hungarian Geological Museum is a prime example of the highly stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. True, the exhibits within are somewhat less than enthralling (the gems and minerals of Hungary, anyone? How about fossilized footprints?), but the structure itself is worth a gander. Built in 1899 by Secession pioneer Odon Lechner, the Geological Museum is a registered monument. The decorated archways, wide staircases and blue-tiled roof almost seem like they should be made of candy. But a close look - and a working knowledge of geology - will reveal that the decorative shapes and curlicues that adorn the ceilings and walls are actually representations of common rock and fossil formations. Located next to the city's Sportcsarnok arena, entry costs just half a euro, and you may even learn something! If you want to explore even more Hungarian Art Nouveau, you can check out The House of Hungarian Art Nouveau. There you will find paintings, furniture, ornaments, jewelry (which you can purchase) - and the structure itself. Plus, there's a cafe there with great coffee and desserts. And coffee in Hungary, by the way, isn't like the coffee in Israel. The standard there, unlike the hafuch here, is espresso. And at a quaint pastry shop with striped wallpaper in the 8th District, a capuccino is an espresso with cold milk and a pile of whipped cream. Not what you expect - but delectable nonetheless. In fact, little of the 8th District is what you'd expect. Known for years as the slummy, dodgy part of town, it is now revitalized. Josephtown, as it is called, was begun in the early 1800s with the construction of the National Museum. Aristocrats moved in around it and built palatial mansions, though as the years went by, they moved out and war tore the place apart. But the prostitutes stopped working there about 10 years ago and students have been migrating there. While you can still visit a 100-year-old blacksmith's shop in the district - with its crackly fire, dusty iron, banging hammers and anvils - and the cobblestone streets reverberate when cars drive by, the local gypsies have started to play jazz. The broken up buildings are being refaced, and every doorway has a story to tell. So perhaps the next time you find yourself in Budapest, you'll check out the stories the city has to offer - on stage, through music and in its very stones. (MUPA: National Dance Theater: Trafo: Tours of the 8th District and other areas: Hungarian Geological Museum: (36/06-1) 267-14-27 House of Hungarian Art Nouveau: The writer was a guest of the Hungarian National Tourist Office.