Friday, November 7, 2008

Big night at Symphony

I haven't made it to Symphony Hall very often this fall, but the combination of Orff's titanic Carmina Burana and my favorite visiting conductor, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos (at left), proved irresistible. Frühbeck de Burgos is a master of musical statement on a grand scale - capable of the kind of muscular, masculine discipline which often eludes the BSO under James Levine (whose specialities are technically rarefied sensualism - think Debussy, or Carter - or passionate, Wagnerian bathos). It was nice to see from the response of last night's crowd that I'm not the last Frühbeck fan in this town - the hall went wild at the concert's close, even if there were, in fact, some caveats in my mind as to the performances of the soloists.

To be sure, given the bizarre vocal requirements of Carmina Burana, any stumbles in the solos are easy to forgive. Orff writes at the very top of everyone's range (or beyond), forcing the tenor to sing for a long stretch in falsetto, and pushing the baritone and soprano to the limit. Alas, baritone Christian Gerhaher's resulting discomfort was clear at times, and he simply didn't have the power to claim his place among the tectonic vocal plates moving around him. The tenor, William Ferguson, fared better technically, but managed little in the way of dramatic interest, even when essaying the poignant (or comically macabre) musings of a roasted swan on a spit. So when it came to solos, it was soprano Norah Amsellem's night, and she came through brilliantly. Even if her voice is perhaps too conventionally romantic for Orff's pagan paean, she soared through his most demanding passages, with the control to make them piercing rather than shrieky. The sexual apotheosis which serves as the climax of the piece was therefore just about everything it should be.

As were the contributions of the chorus and orchestra. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus and PALS Children's Chorus sang with stunning force and clarity, and Frühbeck drew every color Orff intended from the BSO's players. For while sophisticates may cluck over the simple harmonics of Carmina Burana, and its rather obvious debt to Stravinsky (it often plays, I admit, like "Igor Visits Bavaria"), the piece is still stunning in the inventive panoply of its orchestrations. And rhythmically it remains a marvel. Orff called for a whole kitchen's worth of percussion (including timpani, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, antique cymbal, crash cymbal, suspended cymbal, ratchet, castanets, sleigh bell, tam-tam, tambourine, tubular bell, bell, glockenspiel and xylophone), and much of the choral and instrumental writing is essentially percussive, too; and Frühbeck de Burgos is, to be blunt, close to a genius at polyrhythms. His Carmina Burana somtimes floated, and sometimes marched, and sometimes hurtled headlong, but was most fascinating when it was subtly uncoiling from one mode into another, when one could feel beneath its surface a roiling, unstoppable build.

There are those (like the Globe's Jeremy Eichler) who recoil at the raw power of the piece; but to pretend, as Eichler does, that it "bypasses the mind and goes straight for the gut," or to hint that it is essentially Nazi program music ("I confess I find it difficult . . . to fully divorce it from the aesthetic and political conditions of its birth in Germany in 1935-36") seems to me a little silly. The medieval texts which were the piece's source (the "O Fortuna" page of the codex, at right) are nothing if not intellectually challenging in their paradoxical fatalism, and somehow Orff's idiom highlights their cold contradictions. And while it's true the composer wrote music for a "new," "official" version of Midsummer Night's Dream after Hitler's goons banned Mendelssohn, he also had contacts in the resistance (at least), and certainly never worked with the Nazis as closely as, say Herbert von Karajan or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; in general claims that he was either an active resister or an active collaborator have fallen apart. That the cruel energy of Carmina Burana was popular in Nazi Germany is worth noting - to pretend that this makes it suspect today seems inconsistent given the savagery of so much other modern music.

And at any rate, the BSO allowed its listeners an intriguing opportunity to compare and contrast the orgiastic pretensions of Orff to the humble sound of his source material by turning the first half of the program over to the vocal group Sequentia, which essayed a pleasing "reconstruction" of the original songs of Carmina Burana, done either a cappella or against the delicate song of a single harp. The sound of Sequentia is a modest, intimate one - but it's also by turns witty, hearty, and poignant. The audience at first seemed nonplussed by the group's sheer unprepossessingness, but as their intelligence, and the material's witty insights into the eternal corruption of the world, came clear, the crowd came round. But then even I was struck by their temerity at bringing the actual sound of the common man into Symphony Hall - which seems more than ever like a temple to Mammon first, and Music second. But then as Orff makes clear, fortune is always spinning her wheel.

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