A Chorus Makes Its Impact at Blossom in Orff’s Classic

United StatesUnited States Blossom Music Festival [8] – Copland, Orff: Audrey Luna (soprano), Matthew Plenk (tenor), Elliot Madore (baritone), Blossom Festival Chorus (director: Lisa Wong), Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus (director: Ann Usher), Cleveland Orchestra / Adrien Perruchon (conductor), Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 25.8.2018. (MSJ)


OrffCarmina Burana

Aaron Copland’s Statements is more heard about than heard, so it was a welcome opener to this Blossom Music Festival concert. It dates from his early period of aggressive modernism, with a higher level of dissonance than his often-sweet populism from the 1940s. There are six statements, each about three minutes. The first, ‘Militant’, is angular and gruff, barely recognizable as Copland at all. Rather, it lands somewhere between the spikiness of Stravinsky and the density of Hindemith. The young French conductor Adrien Perruchon led it crisply, without attempting to inflate its rhetoric into anything more than it is. ‘Cryptic’ was more familiar ground, opening with Marisela Sager’s pensive solo flute, answered and later overlapped by brass instruments, striking the stark loneliness Copland was at times to revisit in works like Billy the Kid and the slow movement of his Third Symphony. Perruchon whipped up the energy for ‘Dogmatic’, the most aggressive of the six, though it felt like the brusqueness could have been pushed further. ‘Subjective’ was exactly that.

‘Jingo’ is the fifth statement, satirizing the music Copland would soon be drawing on for inspiration. The orchestra relished the humor, which again started to sound more like the familiar Copland. Near the end, Perruchon made an unexpected gesture, slowly reaching out to rest the tip of his baton on the first violinists’ stand instead of making a cutoff, while slyly looking over his shoulder at the crowd. I have no idea if the score actually calls for such a theatrical gesture, but it got a laugh from the audience. The final statement was ‘Prophetic’, though ‘of what’ Copland didn’t say. Perhaps it was in fact prophetic of the sea change to come in his work, balancing percussive thumping at the beginning and sweet consonance in the middle. Whatever the case, it was fascinating to hear.

Precisely fifty years ago to the day, the Blossom Festival Chorus gave its first Carmina Burana, so it was appropriate to mark the occasion with another presentation of Orff’s popular secular cantata. Appropriately enough, the chorus was the clear star. The remainder was a mixed bag of nice moments that didn’t gel as a whole, as well as some mishaps, both vocal and orchestral. Adrien Perruchon was a reliable guide for a heavily rhythmic work, which makes sense considering that when he’s not conducting, he’s the principal timpanist of both the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and the Seoul Philharmonic. Indeed, he was consistent in his handling of rhythms. The odd thing, though, was that in some spots he fussed about certain details, while completely missing others.

For example, Perruchon made it an exaggerated point to take a breathing pause between the first and second volleys of the opening, but not between the second volley and the timpani stroke that precedes the third. But then he missed the two subtle tempo changes that ratchet up the tension as the ‘O Fortuna’ chorus unfolds, something that James Feddeck incorporated perfectly during his brilliant 2013 performance with the orchestra at Severance Hall, when he substituted on short notice for ill music director Franz Welser-Möst. Perruchon took the first part in the Round Dance too slowly, and then sped up too fast near the end and made little distinction between the pianissimo dynamic of the first theme and its mezzo-piano repetition. In other places, Perruchon was spot on, pacing and shaping the ‘In Taberna’ section very well, and encouraging players and singers to characterize their solos. Near the end, he led a fun, swinging ‘Tempus est iocundum’, only to dissipate the buildup of energy with a downright leaden ‘Blanziflor et Helena’.

All the soloists effectively characterized their parts, and they held nothing back for this one-night-only performance, for which they are to be commended. Soprano Audrey Luna was the best of the trio, getting inside the character of her songs, which she had memorized. Whether being lightly flirtatious in ‘Stetit puella’, or confidently soaring over that coloratura landmine ‘Dulcissime’, Luna communicated the meaning while simultaneously giving them luster. Baritone Elliot Madore brought a lot of life to his moments, and displayed a spectacular upper register in ‘Dies, nox et omnia’. Though he had the score, he did have problems with all those changeable Latin word endings. Tenor soloist Matthew Plenk had only one song, the treacherous ‘Olim lacus colueram’, and he tackled it with seething intensity. That’s exactly what it needs, considering it is the song of a swan being roasted on a spit over a fire. Alas, with only one intense sequence, there’s no warm-up, and Plenk suffered a blistering misfire on one of the high notes. Still, I would take that any day over a blandness, especially since he quickly recovered and didn’t retreat, nailing the dangerous passage in its  next two occurrences.

The orchestra played effectively, though they weren’t without a few split and sour notes. Most of the playing was fantastic. Assistant principal flute Marisela Sager was impressive in her solos, except that she disregarded Orff’s markings in ‘Chume, chum geselle mir’, which instruct the player to break up the solo with various breathing pauses. The breaths are there for aesthetic reasons, not practical ones, and if Sager took them, they were so short that they didn’t register in the Blossom acoustic.

Without question, the most impressive part was the Blossom Festival Chorus. Kudos to director Lisa Wong for ferocious attention to detail, particularly in the use of the historically correct demotic Germanic pronunciation of the mostly Latin texts, instead of the vague church-Latin so often heard. These singers knew these words down to the consonants at the end of each one and were the main source of pleasure. The Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus was likewise well prepared and very committed.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

Mark Sebastian Jordan’s reviewing activity in 2018 is supported by an Individual Excellence grant in Criticism from the Ohio Arts Council.

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