Wednesday, April 30, 2014

If music be the food of love...

Nashville Ballet's Carmina Burana
Share on Google+

The St. Louis Symphony brings its season to a close this weekend and next with a pair of concerts featuring big, audience-pleasing works.

This week it's a piece for chorus and orchestra that has been performed often by the symphony (most recently in 2011 with David Robertson on the podium) and is a perennial favorite with audiences world wide: Carl Orff's 1936 “scenic cantata” "Carmina Burana."

The celebrity of "Carmina Burana" is, in part, an illustration of the power of the sliver screen. Once described by British critic Richard Osborne as “the best known new composition to emerge from Nazi Germany”, "Carmina Burana" was something of a cult item in this country until John Boorman's 1981 epic "Excalibur" appropriated bits of it for the soundtrack. The resulting upswing in popularity was not unlike that experienced by Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (or the first two minutes of it, anyway) after the release of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

It's a pity that the other two parts of the trilogy of which "Carmina Burana" is only the first entry—the occasionally pornographic "Catulli Carmina" of 1942, based on poems by Catullus, and "Il Trionfo di Afrodite" from 1951—haven't seen an analogous rise in their fame. I'd love to see the Symphony Chorus take a shot at the intense drama of "Catulli Carmina" in particular, even if translation of some of the lyrics would pose a problem for the symphony's more conservative patrons.

Still, a movie can only pique public interest. "Carmina Burana" has sustained it because its rhythmic drive, its colorful orchestration and the immediate emotional appeal of the secular medieval poems that serve as the text are well nigh irresistible.

Carl Orff by Jens Rusch
Orff envisioned this material as the basis for a choral cantata with some mimed action and “magic tableaux.” And, in fact, the first performance in Frankfurt in 1937 was fully staged, with dancers, sets, and costumes. It's usually presented strictly as a concert piece these days (although the Nashville Ballet gave us an impressive staging of it here last February), but the composer's theatrical intentions are evident in every note.

“Carmina Burana” derives its title from an 1847 collection of secular poetry by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany. As befits their “vulgar” status, the poems celebrate not the theoretical joys of heaven but rather the practical ones of earth: spring, sex, food, sex, drink, gambling, and sex. They also recognize something that we moderns have lost track of, to our detriment: the heavy influence of blind chance on our lives. The setting of “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi” (“Fortune, Empress of the World”), which opens and closes the work, reminds us that the wheel of fortune is always turning and that none of us should get too cocky, as the universe has a tendency to dope-slap the excessively smug.

A number of guest conductors have had their way with Carmina Burana here over the years. This time around it's Spanish-Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray, making what his web site describes as his "US symphonic debut." It's not his St. Louis debut, though; he was last seen here directing the Opera Theatre orchestra in a dramatically flawed but musically impeccable "Carmen" back in 2012. Mr. Izcaray's resume includes extensive operatic engagements, so I'd expect him to make the most of this work's overtly theatrical elements.

Although "Carmina Burana" is mostly about the chorus, there are some great moments for the soloists. Highlights include "Olim lacus colueram"—a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view—which pushes the tenor soloist up to the very top of his tessitura; “Dulcissime,” which opens with an absurdly difficult upward glissando for the soprano; and “Estuans interius,” a dramatic baritone aria that boils over with the rage and frustration of the disappointed sensualist.

The singers this week—all making their SLSO debuts—are soprano Juliet Petrus, baritone Nmon Ford, and Ryan Belongie. Mr. Belongie is a countertenor (a man who sings in the mezzo or alto range), so he'll probably be pretty comfortable with the swan role.

If you're curious as to what the "Carmina Burana" poems might have sounded like when they were written, there are a number of collections out there by early music groups that are worth checking out. The Boston Camerata and the René Clemencic Consort both have fine recordings out there and the Ensemble Unicorn has a disc that looks interesting enough to entice me to buy it.

Steve Reich in 2006
Opening the program will be "The Four Sections," a 1987 work by American composer Steve Reich. Reich was one of the first of the minimalists, a group of composers who (to quote Paul Schiavo's program notes) "abandoned the abstruse harmonies and tangled rhythms that had become the hallmark of late-modern music and pared their compositions down to a few essential elements: neutral, static harmonies; brief repeating melodic figures; and clear rhythmic patterns within a steady pulse." Other notable members of that school include Philip Glass, John Adams, and Terry Riley (whose 1964 "In C" is widely regarded as one of the first minimalist pieces).

"Reich explains that the work's title has multiple connotations," Mr. Schiavo continues. "It refers to the four families of orchestral instruments (strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion). It also references the four movements that comprise the piece. Finally, the title alludes to four harmonic sections within each movement."

In his Composer's Notes at the web site of his publishers, Boosey and Hawkes, Mr. Reich notes that since "each of the movements focuses on one or two of the orchestral sections, one might be tempted to think of it as a concerto for orchestra. However, the focus here is on the interlocking of voices within the sections rather than displaying their virtuosity against the rest of the orchestra. Those familiar with other pieces of mine will recognise this interlocking of similar instruments to produce a contrapuntal web filled with resulting melodic patterns."

"The Four Sections" calls for a fairly sizeable orchestra—nearly 100 players, including two pianos and two synthesizers (SLSO regular Peter Henderson and Nina Ferrigno with two keyboards each) and looks like challenging stuff. I look forward to seeing what our ensemble of virtuosi does with it.

The essentials: Carlos Izcaray conducts The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Orff's "Carmina Burana" and Steve Reich's "The Four Sections" Thursday through Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 1-4, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. For more information:

No comments: