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Conductor James Gaffigan (Mat Hennek)
Conductor James Gaffigan (Mat Hennek)

Music: Concert review

TSO rocks the house with Bartok's sordid tale Add to ...

The Miraculous Mandarin

  • Toronto Symphony Orchestra
  • James Gaffigan, conductor
  • At Roy Thomson Hall
  • In Toronto on Thursday

Orchestras played lots of dance music in the 18th century, but forgot most of the steps during the era of big, serious symphonies. It took an interest in ballet by major modernists like Stravinsky to put dance scores back on the orchestral agenda.

Some of those scores are more often heard in concert than seen in motion. Just you try dancing to The Rite of Spring, or to Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin.

Choreographed productions of that dance-pantomime from 1926 are rare. The music is a wonderfully prickly bundle of sensuality and aggression. It’s also very difficult to play. You’ve really got to be committed to the piece to bring it off, and to carry an audience with you.

The TSO and the young American conductor James Gaffigan took on the challenge this week, and rewarded a somewhat sparse audience on Thursday with more thrills than a ride through a house of horrors – which is what Menyhert Lengyel’s libretto more or less describes. No major composer has chosen a more sordid tale for a ballet.

The action concerns three thugs who get a young woman to dance in an upper-storey window, so as to lure up male passersby to be robbed. Three suckers appear, two are thrown down the stairs, and the third – the mandarin of the title – survives three murder attempts and a mysterious case of auto-iridescence before dying in the woman’s arms. His dogged chase after her through much violent mayhem, and his death as soon as she embraces him, marks the ballet as a parable and a warning about the force of erotic desire.

The music unfolds almost like a cartoon- or film-score, abruptly changing direction with each twist in the story. It was amusing to sit among the TSO’s well-behaved audience as everyone tried to imagine each beating, stabbing and erotic shimmy telegraphed by the music.

It would be possible to achieve a rather cold success with this piece just by nailing its extensive technical demands. Gaffigan and the TSO went much further. They found the gait and gestural character of Bartok’s rugged phrases, and made them their own. They didn’t just show us how the music went, they played how it should feel in the body. As much as they could while sitting, they danced through this piece.

Bartok used a big orchestra for The Miraculous Mandarin, and shone a spotlight on just about every section at some point or other. By the end, it seemed a minor miracle that Toronto has such a terrific collection of players all in one group. Individuals who stood out included clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas, who deftly traced Bartok’s often contorted sketches of the woman’s dancing, and oboist Sarah Jeffrey, whose dark-toned solos hinted at the unsayable mysteries concealed between the notes.

Principal trumpeter Andrew McCandless stepped to the front for Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto in E-flat major, surmounting a troublesome cold to deliver a gleaming and elegant performance. If there are indeed trumpets at the gates of Heaven, they sound like his. He also managed the rare trick, in his brief pre-performance remarks, of being both funny and informative.

The concert opened with Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn, vividly played and characterized, from the bumptious rocking sixth variation to the lilting pastoral that immediately follows, to the pompous fugal variation at the end. If I were running the TSO, I would book Gaffigan for another visit, and soon.

The TSO repeats this program on Saturday, 8 p.m. at Roy Thomson Hall.

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