On this recent spring daffodil night at Bard College, a three-paneled celebration of Hungarian music festooned Sosnoff Theater. Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin (1919), the libretto having a passing resemblance to Mascagni’s opera Iris, remains an iconic modernistic work in the vein of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913) or Shostakovich’s The Nose (1930). Intended to be an operetta, it became a pantomime ballet, yet it caused such controversy that in its premiere in 1926 Cologne it was shuttered after opening night. Clarinet players love this suite because they rarely have the opportunity to wail like banshees. Elias Rodriguez, Sangwon Lee, and Aleh Remezau had their chance to be sensuous and exuberant, and they made the most of it.
Percussionist Tyson Voigt, who introduced the suite with clarity and eloquence, provided the boom in this menacing noir short story about rape, theft, and death. After all, this was an oblique allegory about the horrors of World War I. Perhaps people of that era found the music so shocking that it reminded them of war and they didn’t want to hear any of it. Opportunistic sadism and torture are never popular themes for broad audiences, yet the music is so wonderful that it has become a staple of the classical repertoire. There are more thrills in it at a quarter of the time than nearly anywhere else.
Driving to the concert, I listened to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Georg Solti as sound blared full-throttle from my half-opened widows. There was a blended balance between the strings and the horns that filled the top of my head. In this performance the well-played horns over-shadowed the strings, yet the TŌN Orchestra on stage had many fewer strings on hand than Solti had at his disposal. Despite that small flaw, students delivered a powerful performance that resonates in my brain better than the Solti recording.
The real miracle and sensation of the night belonged to Matthew Woodard, a fourth year undergraduate, in György Ligetti’s Violin Concerto (1990-92). Sometimes grandiose eccentricity alienates audiences, yet when it can transcend its quirkiness and elevate any and all outrageousness into sheer pleasure, then it becomes an incomparable joy. But for this to happen, so much depends on the performance. Woodard delivered an electrifying performance that anyone who saw it might think of coming to see it a second time for it was a strange mixture of Indonesian folk music, traditional classical music, and bizarre avant-garde happenings that included four slide-whistles, marimba, and gongs converging with a half-mad violinist who appeared to live inside Alice in Wonderland.
The violin emerged as an abused spouse, yet the effect was comic, as in The Taming of the Shrew. The unexpected crescendo was a brilliant comic spoof. And yes, there was real music and emotion that was easily accessible behind the occasional shenanigans and a broken string. Woodard is a madcap genius and his two bows celebrated the night’s ecstatic peak.
Ernő Dohnányi’s Symphony No. 2 possessed more ambitious scope in more traditional Germanic structure and style. The opening Allegro conveyed the energy of youth, while in the following Adagio, that included a harp, provided a contemplative pastoral, concluding with a Brahms-like sunset meditation on the death of Romanticism. The short Burla was distinctly in the mode of Charles Ives poking fun at parochial America.
The final movement that began with variations on an attractive Bach fugue that appeared to morph into a capsule history of music, returning back to Ives and America which became Dohnányi’s homeland after he fled the Nazis who gratuitously killed many of his family. The haunting snare drum sounded a subtle alarm about American militarism during the Korean War—hence that alarming frisson freighting a contemporary relevance. The TŌN Orchestra played with fervent unity. Although they achieved thrilling crescendo and climax under Leon Botstein’s instructive baton, the audience appeared slightly perplexed at what they were hearing.