I listened to Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play a concert at Carnegie Hall. Although the company’s repertoire mainly consisted of Romantic works, they played my favorite piece by Bela Bartok, The Miraculous Mandarin Suite. The other works that were played included Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1, Strauss/Alfred Grünfeld’s Soirée de Vienne (paraphrase on Die Fledermaus), Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, “Unfinished”, and Josef Strauss’ Frauenherz (A Woman’s Heart) Polka-Mazur Op. 166. Although all the these works were well done, the Bartok was by far the most interesting. As a dancer growing up I would watch many ballets and had the chance to watch this ballet performed in Prague. It stood out in my mind as it was not the kind of music that I was used to dancing to at the time, and overall a strange strange story. Everything I had been exposed to musically had been mostly tonal and graceful up until that point, Bartok changed the game. I didn’t even realize that people could dance to music like this. And even though the music was strange, it slowly grew on me. Now I listen to this piece years later as a musician, and I am immediately drawn back into that theater.
I think that part of what make a piece like The Miraculous Mandarin Suite so memorable is that the music itself is extremely visual. Bartok is able to replicate such specific emotions through his music, so that you almost don’t need the dancers to tell the story. The ballet is about a prostitute who is kidnapped by three criminals and forced to seduce men so that the criminals could rob them. The first man they trap is old and poor, the second is young and poor. They both are jumped and thrown out, but the last man is a wealthy Chinese man (the mandarin). He is jumped and the criminals try to murder him, but he is kept alive by his longing to embrace the prostitute. Once the two are united, the mandarin’s longing is fulfilled and he begins to bleed out and die. The ballet’s dark plot-line is evident in the music and although the suite is not the entire ballet, the story is still portrayed effectively through the music. I was transported back to the setting of a run down city with the chaotic opening. When the clarinet begins its solo, I could see the seductive dance of the prostitute from her window. Each time the criminals attacked, you could feel the victims fear through the tension in the music. I highly recommend listening to this piece on the wqxr website. The link is: http://www.wqxr.org/#!/story/vienna-philharmonic-orchestra-plays-brahms-schubert-bartok-carnegie-hall/ . I would skip to 1 hour and 49 minutes in so that you can hear the introduction to the piece, if you don’t want to listen to the other works.
Overall the concert was not cohesive enough. The juxtaposition of the romantic works against the modernism of Bartok was definitely dramatic, but it was too different. While all of the works had some folk influences, the execution together did not translate well. Standing alone each piece was excellent but played side by side it didn’t make sense to me. I think that the piece would have been better placed in the context of other modernists of his era. That being said I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s rendition of The Miraculous Mandarin Suite.
The Bartok is an interesting selection! I wonder if the orchestra was wanting to demonstrate their ability to perform a great variety of music–they only come here once or twice a year, so they have to make their performances fill a certain need. I wonder if that is one reason for the otherwise strange juxtaposition?
Could you tell what sorts of musical devices Bartok used to create the sense of doom or darkness? Any chromaticism as we saw in his other works?
What an interesting story-line. Thank you for sharing this. I will have to hear this piece.