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Few rival Bartók and Shostakovich in writing works both socially resonant and disruptive. Despite roots in the folk music tradition, Bartók’s beguiling ballet score, The Miraculous Mandarin, faced censorship in the composer’s home country during his lifetime. The lurid tale of prostitution, theft, fraud, and murder was deemed too depraved and perverse for the public, and its deviance emerged like a shriek from the moral vacuum of World War I.
A beleaguered Shostakovich, long subjected to brutal bullying by the government under the Stalin regime, kept his sardonic Violin Concerto No. 1 hidden for years. When he finally felt it was safe to share it with the public, he deliberately printed its early composition date—a wordless reminder to all of the political atmosphere that had choked its creation.
Conductor Jakub Hrůša, the SF Symphony, and violinist Karen Gomyo join forces for this powerful and creatively defiant program.
Violin Concerto No. 1
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
All sound clips are from San Francisco Symphony performances and are used with permission of the SFS Players Committee.
Shostakovich Violin Concerto and Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin
At A Glance
Violin Concerto No. 1 1948 | 36 mins
In the mid-twentieth century, the Soviet arts policy was committed to the idea that to be worth anything, a work had to make a political or ideological statement—of course, a “correct” one. Dmitri Shostakovich’s position in relation to that policy was never wholly secure. In the interest of self-preservation, the composer kept this sardonic concerto locked away for years in a private desk drawer. When he finally felt it was safe to share with the public, he deliberately printed its early opus number (indicating the true date of its composition)—a wordless reminder of the political atmosphere that had choked its creation. LISTEN FOR: The third movement ends in an immense cadenza for the soloist, which builds from mournfulness into total abandon, recalling melodies from earlier in the concerto. More |
Symphony No. 2 1876 | 28 mins
Alexander Borodin was a research chemist by trade, but his non-working hours were given over to music. Together with an odd assemblage of part-time composers—namely Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and Mussorgsky—Borodin was a member of the “Mighty Handful.” Many of Borodin’s masterworks, such as his Second Symphony, reflect the group’s passionate embrace of Russian folk sources. LISTEN FOR: A contemporary critic posited that Borodin had a program in mind for this symphony. The first movement would be a gathering of Russian warriors; the third, a bayan, or mythic bard; and the fourth, a “scene of heroes feasting to the sound of the gusli [a folk instrument of the zither family] amid the exultation of a great host of people.” DID YOU KNOW? The powerful outburst that begins the symphony was borrowed (along with various other Borodin tunes) to generate the Broadway musical Kismet in 1953. More |
Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin 1919 | 22 mins
Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin—a lurid tale of prostitution, fraud, theft, and murder—was censored for being too depraved and perverse for the public. It opens with a clamorous depiction of the big city: “I lead the highly respectable listener from the crowded streets of a metropolis to a [ruffian’s] den,” Bartók wrote. From there the music tracks the events of the storyline with music that suffocates and overwhelms. It is this harsh, pounding music that is woven throughout the piece, signaling violence. LISTEN FOR: This is a standout piece for the clarinet not only for the difficulty of its part, but for the irresistible episodes of lyric beauty that contrast with the overall atmosphere. The clarinet’s serpentine and seductive phrases epitomize the sultry “songs of allurement” of one of the main characters in the plot—a beautiful girl—and are testament to Bartók’s inimitable storytelling talents. More |
JEANETTE YU is Editorial Director and STEVEN ZIEGLER is Managing Editor at the San Francisco Symphony.