For those hearing the lusty, extroverted Carmina Burana live after years of experiencing it only on commercials and movie soundtracks, the Philadelphia Orchestra and Symphonic Choir’s performance Thursday at the Kimmel Center had to be a highly visceral experience. But for others who have lived with Carl Orff‘s 1936 “scenic cantata” for chorus and orchestra, the piece remains in an odd state of probation.
For decades after World War II, Carmina Burana was one 20th-century work that mainstream audiences enjoyed, with its catchy tunes, pithy rhythms, and earthy medieval poetry that shakes its fist at “Fortuna” and praises all things sensual. Here is a performance of the “O Fortuna” movement:
But the more one understands Orff’s opportunism in Nazi Germany, the more one feels uneasy with the repeated choral exclamations that seem to echo military rallies and enshrine the common folk in ways that fell somewhat into line with Nazi ideology.With one of the most distinctive compositional voices of the 20th century, Orff went on to write far richer, more interesting work. But Carmina is the piece that has become embedded in our culture with its evergreen box-office appeal. We’re kind of stuck with it.
If anybody can probe the piece for what it says in dramatically specific terms, it’s the Philadelphia Orchestra’s ever-inquisitive conductor-in-residence Cristian Macelaru. And yes, where Orff takes a simple idea and beats it to death, Macelaru found some varied articulation or phrasing that suggested the composer wasn’t just going for an effect, but was actually making artistic choices. The conductor took great care to find an appropriate sound for the piece’s many moving parts. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, adapted an aggressive but coloristically lean sound. As the piece bounces between frenzy and tranquillity, Macelaru revealed moments that sounded almost Arabic or Chinese, and in ways that could make you forget the music’s emotional limitations.
The concert marked the debut of the newly formed Philadelphia Symphonic Choir with unusually solid female voices. Male voices have had problems creating crisp rhythms. Though far better than your average amateur group heard in Carmina, the main deficit was revealing the dramatic intent behind some of the quirkier vocal lines. Soloists excelled in that, with baritone Stephen Powell finding ways to characterize the vocal lines without distorting them. Soprano Olga Pudova embodied spring’s sweetness. Tenor Nicholas Phan imaginatively characterized the hapless roasted swan with an ornithologically accurate whine. But isn’t it time he was hired for something that shows what a great artist he is?
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 began the concert. Like Carmina, it was written during the early summer of the composer’s career. Macelaru was completely on top of it, bringing out the many call-and-response effects. The first movement came off brilliantly — and left you wanting to hear what he’ll do with the other eight symphonies.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kimmel Center. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.