Saturday, May 03, 2014

Rites of spring

Carlos Izcaray
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Who: The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Children's Chorus conducted by Carlos Izcaray
What: Music of Steve Reich and Carl Orff
When: May 1–4, 2014
Where: Powell Symphony Hall

[Find out more about the music with the symphony program notes and my symphony preview post.]

The St. Louis Symphony has a long history with Carl Orff's 1936 “scenic cantata" "Carmina Burana," from its first performance back in 1961 with Edouard Van Remoortel on the podium to David Robertson's nicely balanced performance back in May of 2011. There's even a fine 1994 recording with Leonard Slatkin and an all-star lineup of soloists that is apparently still available both in disc form and as an MP3 download from

The "Carmina Burana" we're getting this week from the young Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray—which his web site describes as his "US symphonic debut"—ranks right up there with that of Slatkin and (my favorite) David Amado back in 2003. Like Amado, Mr. Izcaray takes a highly theatrical approach to this material without in any way compromising the music.

Nmon Ford
That's thoroughly in keeping with the composer's intentions. Based on an 1847 collection of secular poetry celebrating food, drink, gambling, and (especially) sex by anonymous authors from the 12th and 13th centuries that turned up in 1803 in the Benedictine monastery in Beuren, Germany, "Carmina Burana" was envisioned by Orff 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 this past February), but the composer's theatrical intentions are evident both in the music and in his writing about it.

The three soloists this week all have solid opera credentials. So, as you might expect, their performances were acted as well as they were sung—and they were sung quite well indeed.

Orff gave some of the strongest solos to the baritone, and Panamanian-American singer Nmon Ford made the most of them. His "Omnia Sol temperat" was filled with sultry longing. He radiated a fierce, frustrated rage as the despairing sensualist in "Estuans interius" ("Boiling inside with violent anger, in bitterness I tell myself: I am made of dust") and his Abbot of “Cucaniensis" (which I've seen translated as Cuckoominster or Cockaigne, among other things) had an element of inebriated comedy that I hadn't seen before but which played quite well.

Juliet Petrus
Soprano Juliet Petrus captured all the barely suppressed eroticism of "Amor volat undique" ("Love flies everywhere") and "Stetit puella." "There was a girl in a red tunic," runs the translation. "If anything touched that tunic, it rustled. Ah!" That final "ah" is sung to a long, melismatic line suggesting an ecstatic release, and that's exactly the way Ms. Petrus delivered it. She also managed that absurdly difficult upward glissando in "Dulcissime" with ease.

The staging of "Dulcissime" was a nice touch as well. As Ms. Petrus sang "Dulcissime, totam tibi subdo me!" ("My sweetest, I give all of myself to you!") she and Mr. Ford turned towards each other. They joined hands and stayed in character all the way through the following "Blanziflor et Helena" chorus, with its glorification of the titular lovers. It was a simple but very effective bit of theatre.

Ryan Belongie
The tenor soloist has only one number ("Olim lacus colueram"), but it's a corker—a macabre little piece about a roasted swan seen from the bird's point of view. The melodic line lies at the top of the tenor range, often forcing the singer up into his falsetto. This time around the role went to countertenor Ryan Belongie (the first time I've seen it cast that way) who was, as a result, able to sing it in his natural voice. He threw himself completely into the role, even going so far as to wear a black and white suit and dying his brown hair silver. Vocally and physically he was that swan. The impact was chilling and even heartbreaking. It was best interpretation of that piece I've seen, bar none.

If you know "Carmina Burana," of course, you know that the soloists are a relatively small part of it. The bulk of the music is carried by the chorus, which has to sing in Latin, Middle High German and Old Provençal. The Symphony Chorus and Children's Chorus (who appear only in the "Court of Love" section, singing lyrics which would make conservative moralists blanch if they knew about them) were all in fine voice when we heard them Thursday night, with clean attacks and crisp enunciation.

The vocal/orchestral balance can be a problem with this music—the instrumental ensemble is large, with a big percussion battery—but it sounded fine to us up in row D of the dress circle. The soloists were less audible up there, but I have come to realize that this is more of a Powell Hall acoustics issue than anything else.

A few intonation issues in the brasses not withstanding, the orchestra sounded wonderful. The opening and closing "O Fortuna" had all the power it required, and both Mr. Izcaray's disposition of his forces and his interpretation of the score brought out some instrumental highlights that I hadn't heard quite as clearly in previous performances of this music. The flutes and piccolo in "Veris leta facies," for example, really stood out, as did the little duet with flautist Mark Sparks and timpanist Shannon Wood in the dance the opens the "Uf dem Anger" ("On the green"). Some of his tempi were surprisingly fast—most notably in the big drinking song "In taberna quando sumus"—but not so much so that they posed a problem for the orchestra or chorus.

The concert opened with Steve Reich's "The Four Sections," a 1987 work in four movements, each of which highlights a different section of the orchestra—strings, winds, brass, and percussion. Reich and the other minimalists owe, I think, an obvious debt to the stripped-down melodic and harmonic language of "Carmina Burana" and many of Orff's other works, so pairing Reich's music with Orff's make sense from that perspective. Unfortunately it also makes it obvious just how limited Reich's palette is by comparison.

With a restricted range of dynamics and tempi and an obsessive use of repetition, Reich's music sounds more like something composed for a machine than for an orchestra of human beings. Minimalism is certainly capable of producing music of great emotional power and resonance as (say) John Adams and Philip Glass have often demonstrated. "The Four Sections," though, felt like little more than a dry academic exercise to me. The contrast with the full-blooded "Carmina Burana" could not have been more stark.

The concert will be repeated Friday Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 2–4, at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand. The Saturday performance will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via live Internet stream.

Next at Powell: David Robertson closes out the season with Britten's "Les Illuminations," along with Tchaikovsky's "Symphony No. 5" and the St. Louis premiere of Marc-André Dalbavie's "La Source d'un regard" Friday and Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, May 9-11. The soloist is tenor Nicholas Phan. For more information:

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