I have been looking forward to The Washington Chorus’s concert on Sunday at the Kennedy Center for a while. Just like most in the audience I was interested in one work of the presented double bill; and gladly willing to sit through the other one for it. One work was named the composition of the 20th century by Time Magazine; the other, in contrast, is one of the most popular works of the 20th century. Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms was performed first, and then Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Needless to say, my weird ears came for the Stravinsky.
I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, J. E. Gardiner / LSO, MtvCh
I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, P. Boulez / BPh
His experience as an educator, his familiarity with percussion instruments, knowledge of the naïve elements that strike a chord with all of us at any age, are brought out to perfection in Carmina Burana, a work that appeals to almost every listener at once, regardless of education, musical background, creed, or ethnicity.
C. Orff, Trionfi, E. Jochum / Bavarian RSO&Ch
C. Orff, Carmina Burana, Ch. Thielemann / Ch&OdDtOpBerlin
The soloists’ contributions were not of the first order but not inadequate, either. All three struggled a bit with their respective highest notes. Baritone Stephen Powell had a big, generous voice but was stretched on occasion. If tenor (and last-minute replacement) Christopher Pfund didn’t sound better, he certainly made up for it with his coy and humorous stage presence. The playing to the crowd may wrinkle purist noses, but then purists probably shouldn’t attend a Carmina in the first place. He was funny in his interpretive miming of the text (Cignus ustus cantat - the tenor’s sole contribution) and provided a jocular element that undoubtedly has its place in a work like this – singing the part of a roasted swan on the spit, after all, does not call for the gravitas that “Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen” demands. Soprano Máire O’Brian sang with her medium-sized voice in a most appropriate plain and natural way, thankfully resisting the temptation to go for operatic bombast where churlishness with such gifts is more called for.
The finale – having come full circle to the O Fortuna – had the genuinely excited audience cheering chorus master and conductor Robert Shafer, his crew, and the soloists with immediate and unanimous standing ovations. Nothing special in itself, no one took them as an excuse to make off early… and that was the most meaningful sign of appreciation on the part of a Washington audience.