Saturday, January 16, 2010

CSO gives 'Carmina Burana' new life

"Melt away and disappear, hail, ice and snow."

No doubt many in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s audience on Friday were glad to hear those words, which are part of Carl Orff’s lusty ode to spring, “Carmina Burana.”

But, as familiar as music lovers are with Orff’s hedonistic cantata, nothing prepared the listener for this galvanizing and exuberant performance under conductor Paavo Järvi. This was “Carmina Burana” as you have never heard it before. Among the surprises, baritone soloist Stephen Powell’s abbot made the audience laugh out loud.

Further, the evening included a rapturous performance of Berlioz’ “Les nuits d’été,” sung by Measha Brueggergosman, a Canadian soprano who is making an amazing comeback after a close brush with death.

The medieval poems selected by Orff for his engaging cantata shed light on the youth of eight centuries ago: They celebrate spring with wine, dancing and love, girls paint their cheeks red to attract young men, men gamble and regret it, a swan bemoans his fate while roasting on a spit and an abbot admits that he likes to drink a bit too much with his friends.

The May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, was arrayed behind the expanded orchestra (which included two pianos, celesta, and a large battery of percussion). Music Hall’s packed stage included three top-flight soloists. And from the balcony, the Cincinnati Children’s Choir, prepared by Robyn Lana, projected pure, disciplined voices.

From the first note, this performance was remarkable not only for its refined power, but also for its spontaneity. The chorus, which has sung this often for the May Festival, has never sounded more energized, singing expressively and with a buoyant sound that made it truly exciting.

Hallmarks included clipped enunciation, precision of attack and glowing color. The first part, “Spring,” ended with a shout. And never have I heard the texts evoked so wonderfully in the orchestra, as well.

The soloists were excellent. Powell, who sang Miller in the May Festival’s “Luisa Miller,” was richly communicative in his solos such as “In Taberna” (In the Tavern).
But he stole the show in the role of the drunken abbot, as he stumbled and hiccupped through the humorous words. It may be hard to ever hear this performed “straight” again.

The high-flying soprano of Laura Claycomb was ideal for the girl in the red tunic. “In trutina” was deeply moving, and her voice soared with stunning beauty into the stratosphere in “Dulcissime.”

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang the impossibly high role of the roasted swan fearlessly and with a firm tone.

Through it all, there was spring to the rhythms, and witty details leaped out to the listener. Järvi’s view was one continuous arc, tautly controlled with brisk tempos and driving momentum. As a result, “Veni, veni venias” was quite jazzy. And who will ever forget the impressive power of the CSO brass and timpani in the drive to the final “O Fortuna”? It was earth shattering, and orchestra and chorus ended in a blaze of virtuosity, to the cheers of a large crowd.

In the first half, Brueggergosman made her debut in Berlioz’s lovely “Les nuits d’été” (Summer Nights). Since she last appeared with Cincinnati Opera in “Dead Man Walking,” she has transformed herself by losing 145 pounds. Now, she is something of a miracle, having survived a split aorta and open-heart surgery last June.

She projected a voluptuous soprano and communicated the six romantic poems by Theophile Gautier with emotion, involvement and mesmerizing presence.

“Absence” was approached with ravishing purity of tone and deep expression.
Part of the magic, though, was the depth and refinement of the orchestra, as Järvi captured the essence of each gem. The radiant finish, “The unknown isle,” evoked soaring music of the sea, as Brueggergosman sang of sailing on an angel’s wing.

The evening opened with another gem: the CSO premiere of Olivier Messiaen’s “Un sourire” (A Smile), written for the Mozart bicentennial in 1991. Its serene, mystical atmosphere was interrupted with bright interjections of “birdsong” in the percussion.

The concert repeats at 8 p.m. today (Saturday) in Music Hall. Tickets: 513-381-3300,

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