An Outcast on Manhattan Island
Isaac Stern, Auditorium Carnegie Hall
Béla Bartók: Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin, Op. 19, BB 82 – Selections from Twenty-Seven Two- and Three-Part Choruses, BB 111a & BB 111b – Concerto for Orchestra, BB 123
Cantemus Choir, Dénes Szabó (choir master), Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer (conductor)
I. Fischer (© Akos Stiller)
“Here are gathered all kinds of shoddy, good-for-nothing German and Jewish rabble, who make up the majority of Budapest’s population.”
Béla Bartók, 1905
The battle for Bartók’s corpse was a bizarre and somewhat macabre allegory for his life as, essentially, a refugee. He was originally buried in upstate New York but his son tried unsuccessfully to have the body removed to Hungary. Eventually he succeeded and the composer went “home” to his final resting place. What was eerie was that while alive the composer went through similar periods of homelessness, ultimately going wherever there were commissions or invitations to perform. If there are constants (as opposed to “Contrasts”) in his life, they are insecurity and poverty.
There is a plaque on a wall just about halfway between Carnegie Hall and the Ansonia Hotel acknowledging the fact that the famous composer lived in one place and shone at the other. Bartók’s spot by Central Park is just across the greenery from where Mahler lived when he was in our city, although miles apart in luxuriousness. Each had an easy walk to Carnegie Hall, although the athletic Mahler had no problem with his longer peroration to reach the Metropolitan Opera. Although it is incorrect to state that Bartók premiered his Contrasts at Carnegie with his friend Benny Goodman, he did indeed tickle the ivories for subsequent performances.
Think about this: It would have been extremely difficult for a work of art to be banned from a major German city in the mid-1920’s, but this is exactly what happened to Bartók’s ballet The Miraculous Mandarin after its premiere in Cologne in 1926. What’s a little sadism, prostitution, and murder among friends? In any case, the work survives almost exclusively as this instrumental suite, a cacophonous masterpiece of brutality and an exposure of the duality of the Teutonic mind re: Orientalism.
This thorny score was executed perfectly by the orchestra. The Fischer brothers, Iván and Adám, were born to conduct this ethno-classical music as they were literally raised just across the street from the opera house in Budapest, where their father was the translator into Hungarian of many famous opera libretti. This performance was crisp and amazingly accurate. Perhaps some of the tempi were a little too fast for the ballet itself, but with no dancers to worry about the ensemble felt comfortable at this breakneck speed. Thrilling!
The Fischer brothers are known as the masters of surprise and this evening Iván charmed us all by presenting some of the Bartók pieces for youth chorus by employing a full compliment of 43 girls from the eastern Hungarian town of Nyíregyháza. Dressed in dirndl style outfits, the singers were interspersed among the orchestra and at first sang a capella. When this segment was concluded (to very enthusiastic applause), Maestro turned to the audience and said that this next batch of songs was written for a school choir and a school orchestra. “We already have the school choir, so we will attempt to play like a school orchestra!” received another prolonged ovation. The result was charming and totally won over a typical Carnegie audience composed of American parents and grandparents. After intermission many of the girls came into the audience to sit with us and enjoy the main instrumental course.
The Concerto for Orchestra is one of the undisputed greatest works of the last century, right up there with the later symphonies of Mahler, the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev and the cream of the crop of Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils. Iván Fischer was born to conduct it and did so with pinpoint precision and exciting twists and turns. One exceptional aspect of his performance was that there was only one beat of rest between each of the five movements, making this already exciting musical landscape positively kaleidoscopic. In some real sense Bartók’s masterpiece is surprisingly American, but is really the creation of a citizen of the world reacting to current events (the poignant brass chorale in movement two a homage to the dead fighters and the parody of Shostakovich that is the fourth movement forever capturing the overwhelming mood of war upon human society). I grew up with this piece (we are essentially the same age) and have heard it hundreds of times, but never as brilliantly executed as on this extremely satisfying concert.