A Packed Stage Creates a Carmina Burana Feast

United StatesUnited States Dvořák, Orff: Rachel Hall (soprano), Alfred E. Sturgis (tenor), Micael Roemer (baritone), Canton Symphony Chorus, Summit Choral Society, Malone University Chamber Choir, Neos Dance Theater, Canton Symphony Orchestra / Gerhardt Zimmermann (conductor), Umstattd Performing Arts Hall, Canton, OH, 21.4.2018. (TW)

Dvořák – Serenade for Winds in D minor (1878)
Orff – Carmina Burana (1936)

Thanks to all the pre-publicity surrounding this season-ending performance from the Canton Symphony Orchestra, there wasn’t an empty seat in Umstattd Performing Arts Hall on April 21. We were promised a musical feast of epic proportions, to be served piping-hot by 86 musicians, combined choirs of more than 100 voices, three vocal soloists, and a modern dance troupe. So patrons arrived hungry.

Just a few days before, a local newspaper article about the concert quoted CSO Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann about Orff’s Carmina Burana, ‘It’s 100 percent a crowd-pleaser. It’s probably the most performed 20th-century choral work ever.’ Composed in 1936, Orff’s monumental opus is still exceptionally popular.

An opulent repast like this merits spicy hors d’oeuvres. The CSO obliged with a curious dish: Dvořák’s Serenade for Winds, composed in 1878.

It’s ‘curious’ only because compared to the sheer heft of the main course, the Dvořák is decidedly more modest fare. Still, this teasing morsel let the audience taste the always remarkable technical and interpretive skills of the group’s musicians. Full of what the composer called ‘Mozart’s sunshine’, the geniality was exquisitely articulated by the small ensemble. Pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns all engaged in a frolicsome march over the steady lyricism streaming from the strings—a delectable few minutes of breezy air and warm light, and a calm prelude to the ferocity that followed.

While Carmina is not an opera in the traditional sense, it is gripping in its dramatic thrust. Call it epicurean theatre of the flesh. The texts — most in Latin, with a few in Low German — were drawn from 24 medieval poems penned by a rogue group of Bavarian monks, defrocked priests, and itinerant scholars. Disillusioned with the rigid social and religious conventions of their day, they dedicated themselves to self-indulgent pursuits of worldly pleasures.

Orff’s score is somewhat spartan in the way it eschews complex orchestral harmonies, favoring instead plain but memorable melodies. Their syllabic simplicity is combined with relentless rhythmic patterns, all superbly rendered here with glittering immediacy, the powerful instrumentation  augmented by two grand pianos and seven percussionists.

The narrative potency of this wild cantata rests in the declamatory choral singing. Here, it was delivered with electrifying precision and fervor by the Canton Symphony Chorus, the Malone University Chamber Choir, and the youth chorus from Summit Choral Society.

Additionally, the three excellent soloists provided savory passages, ranging from unabashed bawdiness to sensual gracefulness. In ‘Once I lived on lakes’, tenor Alfred E. Sturgis sang the anguished complaint of a swan being cooked over a fire pit (‘Miserable me! Now I am blackened and roasting fiercely’). Strutting about in nervous jerks, his words were inflected with funny squeals and squawks until he was stopped, open-mouthed and dead in his tracks, as it were, by a hilarious glower from Zimmermann.

Later, in ‘I am the Abbot of Cockaigne’, baritone Michael Roemer was oddly alluring as he performed with all the pompous, slurred swagger you’d expect from a drunken priest. Later still, in ‘This is a joyful time’, soprano Rachel Hall, accompanied by the youth chorus, was an elegant embodiment of conflicted emotions as she struggled to choose between chastity and physical love. In finally choosing the latter, her voice soared to stratospheric limits: ‘My sweetest one, I give myself to you completely!’

The dancing by ten members of Neos Dance Theater, choreographed by artistic director Bobby Wesner, was alternately lissome, earthy, bestial, and enthralling—like so many sinewy sprites darting about the tiered stage. Their elongated, colored shadows spilled up and out, onto the side walls at the front of the auditorium, evoking ghosts rising in a moonlit forest. At times the group moved like a single, willowy creature; at others like a tribal unit, swaying and writhing to the chanted melodies. Every extension of an arm or a leg, every leap, every facial expression or hand gesture was a riveting punctuation mark. Even the incessant sounds of thumping feet became another vital percussion effect.

Carefully balancing these diverse components — to let them breathe freely, to sustain their individual identities, to integrate them into a palatable whole — must be a daunting endeavor. In this context, Zimmermann made a master chef, keeping all the tasty ingredients from dissolving into a sloppy stew.

Carmina Burana ended as it began, with ‘O Fortuna’, a thunderous howl against the oppressive cycles of ‘monstrous fate’ that entangle human existence. ‘Let us mourn together!’ were the last words from the choir, but it’s doubtful anyone left the concert hall in mourning. Most were likely overjoyed at their good fortune, partaking of a magnificent feast.

Tom Wachunas

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