The Miraculous Mandarin

The Miraculous Mandarin
Preceded by a Multimedia Exploration of the work

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez

Gerard McBurney – Creative Director
Daniel Allar – Actor

Reviewed by: Elizabeth Barnette

Reviewed: 9 December, 2006
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

For the second concert of their three-day visit to Carnegie Hall, the Chicago Symphony presented an instalment of its series “Beyond the Score”. The 50-minute first half sought to bring an added dimension to Bartók’s score for the Miraculous Mandarin by exploring its background and social context. After a brief introduction by Pierre Boulez, Gerard McBurney, the creator of the program, started reading his informative script, and actor Daniel Allar added commentary, excerpts from letters, diaries and other relevancy, with photographs, short film-clips, collages, and computer-animated photos of paintings – more than 600 slides in all – were projected onto a large screen which was suspended over the orchestra.

The background information on Bartók was supplemented by recordings of folksongs he collected, there were ample references to the social and cultural climate of the era during and following World War I, to the rise of the Megalopolis, to Freud, to the assassination of Rasputin, to Fu Manchu and orientalism, while images flashed across the screen at a sometimes frantic pace. Excerpts played by the orchestra further illustrated the way Bartók translated the tale of The Miraculous Mandarin into music. This special performance at reduced ticket prices was billed as a “Discovery Concert” by Carnegie Hall, the third in a series which started earlier in the season at the smaller Weill Recital Hall with two ‘discovery days’: The Songs of Shostakovich, and Steve Reich.

‘Mandarin’ was the most ambitious project so far, aimed at providing greater insights into the music and at possibly attracting new audiences to classical music. One would have expected that a multimedia performance of this sort would appeal to a younger crowd, but there did not seem to be a great age difference from an average concert audience on this occasion.

After whetting one’s appetite for a revolutionary, violent and lurid piece, the performance of the complete ballet score, after the intermission, certainly lived up to expectations. It is a composition Boulez has had in his repertoire for many years, and he quite obviously feels a deep connection to it. From the opening bustle of the ‘big city’ this was a passionate personal statement, in both its energy and its lyricism. Finally having been ‘let loose’ to play the whole composition uninterrupted (which the CSO and Boulez were due to do again the following afternoon, alongside Ravel and Ligeti), the musicians of the Chicago Symphony seemed eager to give it their all, and to show off their virtuosity. It would be hard to imagine a better performance.

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