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8.11.05

Carmina Burana vs. the Composition of the 20th Century

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.

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I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, J. E. Gardiner / LSO, MtvCh
One of the advantages of a live concert is that, lacking obvious beauty for the casually musical ear, a work can still score on the account of sheer volume. If not everyone came away from the first half of the concert a newly converted Stravinsky-an, many were at least likely to have been impressed. The Symphony of Psalms, a 1930 commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitzky, is as intriguing and strange as it is unique and magnificent. With its violin/viola-free (yet large) orchestra, the choral parts are balanced to complement (not support or dominate) the naturally wind-heavy orchestration. Set to verses of three different psalms in Latin, the work may be an oddly catholic expression of an orthodox Christian, but its profound spiritual character pervades all of it. Its many different textures and neoclassical style, its lean grandeur and angular riffs are all contained in under 30 minutes. Despite being a brief affair, it is a tour de force for the winds and brass in particular. Although the players of the Washington Chorus Orchestra coped admirably, they were playing hard at their limit and sometimes beyond.

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I. Stravinsky, Symphony of Psalms, P. Boulez / BPh
The weather played its part, turning intermission on one of the most beautiful days of the year into something glorious, contrasting sunny warmth with the starker works on offer inside the Concert Hall. There are superficial similarities between Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the contemporary Carmina Burana by the music pedagogue/composer Carl Orff – but not much more. Orff’s work based on medieval poems is not particularly profound, certainly not spiritual, and can hardly be accused of conciseness, either. It eschews complexity (which is only appropriate given its simple folk setting) and instead of refinement it opts for an almost ruthless boldness. That it impresses most ears more than the Stravinsky goes to show Orff’s genius in tapping into the audience’s primal sense of aesthetic appreciation.

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.

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C. Orff, Trionfi, E. Jochum / Bavarian RSO&Ch
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C. Orff, Carmina Burana, Ch. Thielemann / Ch&OdDtOpBerlin
That enthusiasm clearly had spread among the performers as well: chorus and orchestra played and sang with passion and offered a consequently excellent performance that – as should be the case with Carmina – burst at the seams with vitality. An occasional craggy rawness can’t be considered a flaw in this work – and that some players were twitching like race horses in the stall (all too eager for their entry) could not do harm in music the total of which is so much more than the sum of its parts.

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.