As with any orchestra, these truly phenomenal moments are rare. But on February 1, the Quad City Symphony performed at a level as good as anyone else. It reached this apex not with a delightfully simple Haydn symphony, but with the frenetic, overly stimulating, and nearly impossible Miraculous Mandarin Suite of Béla Bartòk.
February’s concert featured guest conductor Rosen Milanov. An associate with the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra, Milanov hails from Bulgaria, where for seven years he has plied his trade with the New Symphony Orchestra, turning it into one of the most respected orchestras in Eastern Europe.
Milanov’s merging of German Romantic, French Romantic, and 20th Century eastern-European pieces into one program made for an enjoyable concert. The combination of Schumann, Franck, and Bartòk resulted in an evening that was accessible for the novice listener, beautiful, and challenging. Milanov’s organization coupled with his animated presence indicated why he is considered one of the most promising young conductors in the world.
Despite the balance and polished elegance of Franck’s Symphony in D Minor and the Byron-inspired Manfred Overture, it was the orchestra’s performance of Bartòk’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite that stole the evening.
The Miraculous Mandarin was composed during a time when Bartòk was experiencing both critical and financial success. Designed as a pantomime ballet, it was written near the end of World War I and premiered in Cologne in 1926.
But the piece’s racy nature quickly diminished its life as a pantomime drama. So Bartòk derived the Miraculous Mandarin Suite as a way to keep the music alive.
The subject matter for the Miraculous Mandarin is intense. Tracing the seduction, robbery, and murder of three victims, the music requires a certain level of fire. Jagged from the opening bars, chilling in the juxtaposition of sound, and pulse-quickening in its hurried pace, the music grabs even the casual listener, refusing to let go.
The Quad City Symphony was up to the challenge. Led by strong work from the cellos, basses, brass (especially the trombones), and clarinets, the piece was appropriately disconcerting.
The trombones and clarinets captured the essence of their characters. The trombones aurally painted an image of the first victim, a shabby rake, with their near flawless glissandos and later their description of the Mandarin pentatonic trombones. Likewise, the clarinets’ erotic call seduced the audience, drawing us closer as though we were the victims.
While the orchestra feverishly played, its efforts were aided by the intimate quality of the Adler. The entire experience reminded me of hearing Saint-Saens’ Symphony No. 3 in the confining Clapp Recital Hall at the University of Iowa. On that day, the music unrelentingly poured over me. I felt the same way during Saturday’s concert; the performances of Milanov and the orchestra crashed against me, leaving me exhausted but fulfilled.
As good at the Miraculous Mandarin was, the concert’s length was dominated by the music of others. The concert closed with an elegant and moving performance of Cesar Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. Franck’s use of the same themes through the three movements ties the piece together nicely. Likewise, the solo efforts of Michael Fee on horn and Sally Goodwin Vogel were subtle but beautiful. The front end of the concert was filled with the Manfred Overture by Robert Schumann. Though neither composer was accomplished in orchestration compared to Johannes Brahms, both produced memorable work, the two featured works on February’s program among them.
Under the right circumstances, the QCSO has demonstrated that it is capable of performing with the best. As a regional orchestra, it is a real treasure, and February’s concert highlighted the need for the community-at-large to experience the joy of classical music outside of a summer pops concert. Nothing beats the intensity of an opening-night performance, the rush of great music filling the Adler, and the incomparable range of emotions experienced during a concert. With two concerts left, there is still time to experience what the QCSO has to offer.