Saturday, January 16, 2010

A "Carmina Burana" Long to be Remembered

By Mary Ellyn Hutton
Jan 16, 2010 - 5:42:24 AM
"I like to drink with my friends," sings the abbot of Cucany (in Latin) in Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." Baritone Stephen Powell made the cleric's avowal visual as well as audible Friday night at Music Hall, stumbling to his feet and grabbing the podium to steady himself. It was but one choice moment in a performance of Orff's popular cantata by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and May Festival Chorus that will long be remembered.

On the podium was CSO music director Paavo Järvi, whose choral credentials include not only his Baltic (Estonian) heritage, but a 2004 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance (Sibelius Cantatas with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and Estonian choirs). Järvi, who leaves the CSO at the end of next season, led an outstanding program that also included Hector Berlioz' "Les nuits d'ete" ("Summer Nights") featuring soprano Measha Brueggergosman and the CSO premiere of Olivier Messiaen's "Un sourire" ("A Smile").

Orff fashioned his cantata in 1936 from a collection of medieval poems about wine, women and song. Instantly popular and never out of the repertoire, it makes a direct appeal through its rhythmic vitality, consonant harmonies and melody-and-accompaniment style. (Orff's use of repetition here has even been called proto-"minimalist" in the manner of late 20th-century composers like Philip Glass.) The work utilizes a huge orchestra, including an expanded percussion section, two pianos and celeste.

Centerpiece of the performance was the 126-voice May Festival Chorus directed by Robert Porco. The choristers, who showed balance and strength in all sections, sang with relish, punching out the mixed Latin and Old German text with great rhythmic and expressive focus (translations were projected over the stage). The Chorus was joined in part III by the Cincinnati Children's Choir directed by Robyn Lana (80 voices, positioned in the left balcony of the hall). Their sweet voices added a patina of innocence to the often ribald work. In addition to Powell, soloists included soprano Laura Claycomb and tenor Lawrence Brownlee. All three gave the work a delightful theatrical boost in addition to their superb singing.

Brownlee negotiated the "Ballad of the Roasted Swan" ("Cygnus ustus cantat") with ease, from its perilously high-pitched opening through the bird's stratospheric turns on the spit, all in a voice edged with silver. Claycomb was the essence of sweetness, from her lament for the maiden without a lover ("Amor volat undique") to her own demure submission ("In trutina mentis dubia") and crystalline high notes on "Dulcissime, Totam tibi subdo me" ("Sweetest boy, I give my all to you"). Powell, who owns a warm, lyric baritone, had several big moments. "Estuans interius"("Seething inside with boiling rage") was taken at a nearly breathless clip.

His "Dies, nox et omnia" ("Day, night and all the world") with its treacherous falsetto extension had precision and expressive longing, echoing his earlier "Omnia sol temperat," where he sang of spring when a young man's fancy lightly turns to (true) love. He and Claycomb flirted quite engagingly in "The Court of Love," where he and love conquer all.

Järvi brought out all the exuberance and drive of "Carmina Burana" while culling its tender moments, as in the Round Dance of part I ("Springtime").
"O Fortuna," the famous chorus that frames the cantata -- and contains its ultimately sober message about the uncertainties of life -- shook the hall with explosive power.

The first half of the concert was devoted to the French masters. Brueggergosman and the CSO made the case for hearing Berlioz' "Les nuits d'ete" more often. (There has been only one prior performance by the CSO, in 1984 led by Michael Gielen, with mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing.) The five songs (Op. 7) are delicately scored, but with gem-like beauty against the voice, which sings of longing and lost love. The regal Brueggergosman sang with exquisite control, never "over-singing" or burdening her texts. "Villanelle" is about a pair of lovers exploring the woods, "Spectre of the Rose" about a flower that once graced a lady's bosom. "On the Lagoons" is a lament over a dead lover, while "Absence," "At the Cemetery" and "The Unknown Isle" pursue loss beyond the grave. The CSO woodwinds, always full of character, were consistently fine, including clarinetist Richard Hawley, who accompanied Brueggergosman to the very last note of "Spectre of the Rose," and kept "objecting" as "At the Cemetery" came to an end.

Messiaen's 1991
"Un sourire," written for the bicentennial of Mozart's death, was a lovely tribute, alternating a slow, gentle melody with instrumental "bird calls" by woodwinds and xylophone. Järvi shaped it affectionately, dropping his hands after a long moment at the end to let the silence become a part of the music. Note: Seen scrawled on a page of the score of "Une sourire," displayed in the Music Hall lobby during intermission: "Paavo, don't go."

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. tonight (Saturday, Jan. 16) at Music Hall.

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