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Classical Review: RPO performs "Carmina Burana"

Getting medieval with Orff


Choral groups have few blue-chip certainties in the 20th-century repertoire, but Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" is definitely one of them. With music that has been pilfered for movies, commercials, video games, rock albums, and sitcom episodes, Orff's "scenic cantata" always draws a crowd -- and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Oratorio Society surely counted on that for its season finale. The full orchestra, choristers of all ages, and three soloists crammed the Kodak Hall stage and poured out to the boxes to present this ever-popular salute to wine, women, and (lest we forget) Fortune.

It is based on 12th- and 13th-century poems, in Latin and medieval German, by wandering scholars and defrocked priests. Their preoccupations were the eternal verities: drinking, enjoying nice weather, eating roast swan (see below) and, to quote one of the songs, "felix coniunctio", which means just what you think it means. (The RPO program includes a booklet translating all the bawdy words).

I believe Orff made up all his own tunes, and he produced some simple but stubborn earworms. Comparing higher-minded 20th-century choral works like Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" or Britten's "War Requiem" to "Carmina Burana" is like comparing filet mignon to a double cheeseburger -- bearing in mind that a well-prepared cheeseburger may not be good for you, but it's very tasty. Many fancy soloists and conductors like getting medieval with Carl Orff, and audiences love it when they do. (Take that, Stravinsky!)

Leading a huge work like "Carmina Burana" must be like steering an 18-wheeler. This isn't really a work that needs much "interpreting," but a performance does need to be tight and exciting, and the chorus, soloists, and orchestra certainly delivered on Thursday night under the direction of guest conductor Gregory Vajda.

The Oratorio Society is a sizeable group, well-prepared (their Latin patter was excellent) and mostly well-balanced.At times I could occasionally barely hear the chorus over the orchestra, but I think this was because of my seat location close to the front. I assume that the blend is better further back, or in the balcony. To be sure, this was not a concern in the famous wall-of-sound chorus, "O Fortuna," which bookends the piece and definitely registered. The Bach Children's Chorus, singing from memory, added a pleasingly pure touch to their numbers. (Do their parents know they're singing words like, "I am burning all over with first love"?)

Sitting so close to the stage, however, enabled me to enjoy the soloists fully. Orff gave his soprano, tenor, and baritone some very challenging music to sing. Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley made "In Trutina" a silvery moment of repose among all the bawdry, and Anton Belov interpreted the baritone role (who spends much of his time trying to convince the soprano to give herself to him) very effectively as a mini-Don Giovanni. The tenor gets only one aria in "Carmina Burana," but it's a killer: a swan's lament as he roasts on a spit, with a multitude of extremely high, loud notes. Anthony Webb, in a literal walk-on role, handled this smashingly, hitting every note spot-on and interpreting with a welcome, macabre sense of humor.

"Carmina Burana" wasn't the only item that rocked the house in this concert. It opened with two very appealing works in a Latin vein. The RPO premiere of Roberto Sierra's "Fandangos" introduced a colorful and artfully repetitive work that has become very popular since its premiere in 2001. I can see why: it is an ideal modern-but-not-too-modern concert opener, energetic and splendiferously scored in the slowly-drive-you-out-of-your-mind style of Ravel's "Boléro," and the orchestra played it splendidly.

Alberto Ginastera's "Estancia" ballet suite is a bit more familiar, something like Aaron Copland's "Rodeo" set in Argentina, with gauchos instead of cowboys. It's excitingly rhythmic and lyrical by turns, but mostly exciting: the concluding "Malambo" is as noisy and exhilarating an orchestral rave-up as anyone ever wrote. Gregory Vajda and the RPO gave Ginastera's piece an aerobic workout of a performance that would make Copland's cowboys, and even Orff's lusty students, look downright prim.