As it happens, this evening turned out to double up as a welcome celebration for the newly appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of the orchestra, Allison B. Vulgamore, who is tipped to be the potential solution to the orchestra's steep financial troubles. If the extremely high-quality of the performance is anything to go by, one can't help but pray she succeeds in her rescue.
Bartok's Miraculous Mandarin is among the ranks of those grand orchestral ballet scores from the teens and the late twenties that make the youthful modernist inside us go misty-eyed. The very sound of the music tells us that this comes from a time when a freshly composed new work could get people so tremendously upset that they'd forget their concert hall manners and boo, stomp out of the hall and even punch the poor fellow concert-goers who urged them to quiet down.
In its original, pantomime guise the piece is nothing less than a tale of senseless lust, greed-induced murder set in the musical equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Back in 1923, this forced Bartok to groom it and downsize it to an Orchestral Suite to make it publicly viable. Indeed, the weight of the veto seems to still hang over the pantomime version—a rarely performed item, even in concert-performance. This makes the Philadelphia Orchestra's decision to perform the unabridged 1923 version an original, inspiring choice.
The piece itself has one of those beginnings that's difficult to pull off entirely, mostly because unlike many other ballets written around the same time (The Rite of Spring, Petrushka, The Wooden Prince) it does not gradually build up a dense texture 'from the ground up', as it were. Instead, we are plunged in the middle of a trafficked metropolitan road from the start, as strings, woodwinds and brasses (and organ) pile their ostinati on top of one another in a matter of seconds. Charles Dutoit's Philadelphia Orchestra managed it admirably, and if there was a tad less frustrated anger in that first horn-call (a pretty literal depiction of modern road-rage) than I would have liked to, by the time the organ came in, the hall was booming with the sound of the electrified metropolis.
From then on, the quality of the performance was sustained at a consistently high level. Dutoit's consummate muscular charisma, never over-done, was a delight to see and to hear. A personal favourite was the way he and his players could tame Bartòk's dense sound-masses into ritardandi so tense as to make your fists clench. Further highlight was the brass section, with those sneering falling minor-third glissandi and the plodding dissonant chords in dialogue with the bass drum; the lascivious clarinet solos; and the balance of the orchestral sound whenever the celesta came in to add its finish of eerie shimmering. But perhaps, most of all, I loved the strangely-understated ending, which is absent in the Suite version of the score. Unlike most other ballets of this time, this music does not offer any final catharsis: all we get is a series of fading rhythmic spasms underscored by a dwindling bass clarinet line, closed by a hushed double bass glissando.
It would have been hard enough to match such an exceptional first half of the programme. Yet the joint effort of the Orchestra and pianist Yefim Bronfman's in performing Brahms' Second Piano Concerto succeeded in surpassing it. The catch-word here is 'joint-effort': for the chemistry between conductor and pianist was what truly made the performance. No other piano concerto requires this degree of musical intimacy between orchestra and piano; this music is light-years away from the fiery game-rivalry of earlier specimens of the genre such as Chopin's, Schumann's, Grieg's and even Brahms' own first Piano Concerto. By the time we get to Brahms's Second Piano Concerto, it is as though the relationship between piano and orchestra has reached a new stage: here is the profound mutual understanding, the finishing of each another's sentences. Which indeed is exactly how the concerto opens: a solo horn intones a melody which the piano is quick to complete.
It takes formidable musicianship to grab an audience's full attention with an entry as understated as this: Yefim Bronfman is the embodiment of such musicianship. In an age of dizzying demand for new young prodigies, it is pianists like Bronfman who set the standard for any newcomer to achieve. His truly flawless technique is a means to something of a protean quality in his music-making. One second he's basking in the plangent chordal theme of the first movement, the next he's crafting accompaniment filigree to the cello's haunting solos (handsomely played by principal cellist Hay-Ye Ni) in the third movement. Perhaps the most halting characteristic of his playing is just how quietly he allows himself to play, while still being able to project sound across the hall. Of course, he could never do this without the collaboration of Dutoit, who moulds the sonic space for the soloist with rare skill.
The commitment of the conductor, the orchestra and the soloist made the audience's standing ovation at end of the concert one of the most fully deserved I have seen in a long time. This season is off to a very promising start indeed.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will perform this same program again on Saturday, October 2nd and Sunday, October 3rd at the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia.
Photo: Yefim Bronfman. Credits: Dario Acosta
Concert review: Yefrim Bronfman with the VPO under Gergiev in Prokofiev
Concert review: Bronfman at this year's Edinburgh Festival
Concert review: Martha Argerich and the Royal Philharmonic under Charles Dutoit in Dublin