Carmina Burana

Chicago Symphony Orchestra, at Orchestra Hall, January 26

In Carmina Burana composer Carl Orff found his musical vocabulary, one that emphasizes rhythms above all else, with percussion that dominates the orchestration and melodies that are tonal and singable–in some ways it’s like a more approachable Stravinsky. The harmonies are tonal, not elaborate, but almost primitive. The rhythms are quite complex; they’re the major point of the work. The words, from a collection of 12th-century Bavarian poems written in vulgar Latin and Middle German, deal with basic subjects like love and drinking, but the orchestral and vocal colors, dating from 1937, are purely of our own time.

This is one of the certifiable hits of 20th-century music, a rarity given that it’s a choral work. (In his program notes Phillip Huscher observes that 25 CD versions are listed in the Schwann catalog, as good a gauge of popularity as anything.) Something in this music grabs the listener and will not let go. The first time I heard it I was ten years old, idly half listening to a local classical radio station in Kansas City. I didn’t hear the name of the composer or of the work, and I listened in vain for it for the next few years. When I finally found it I bought a copy and proceeded to memorize it. I can think of few pieces of music that have affected me in such a visceral way: the big numbers giving place to sweet, quiet songs, the juxtaposition of very modern settings and medieval words and sentiments, the driving rhythms that stick in the brain, the sound of massed voices singing exacting music exactly. Not many pieces of music approach the accomplishment of Carmina Burana; even Orff never really recaptured its success, though he never strayed from its basic formula.

One reason for its success is the way Orff uses instruments, among which one would have to include the human voice. The orchestration amounts to a full-employment program for percussionists–multiple timpani, cymbals, a big bass drum, a xylophone, a celeste, two grand pianos. (You know things are approaching the fortissimo level when you see two pianists banging away on grand pianos with the tops up, clearly feeling but not really hearing them.) There’s also plenty of brass as well as a large chorus, a children’s chorus, and a trio of soloists. When they’re all going they make a noble noise indeed. This is a work that loses from being played quietly on a home stereo.

The chorus is central to Carmina Burana, and most of the really interesting music making is assigned to it–the opening (and closing) chorus, “O Fortune, as changeable as the moon,” the men’s number “In taberna,” detailing who drinks (everyone) and their reasons (you name it). The chorus is used in a very 20th-century way; it’s totally nonoperatic, al- though Orff conceived this as a theater piece. (Stravinsky did some similar things, but they’re not as satisfying; his works are harder on the voice, as well as much more difficult to listen to.) The solo bits in Carmina Burana do not stand alone, and they don’t really work as excerpts. The choruses are the point, and if you hear a snippet from this work on a drive-time radio show it’s likely to be either the short instrumental dance or one of the chorus numbers.

Harmonically the work isn’t difficult at all, but the rhythmic demands are greater than the norm, and it gives the sopranos a pretty good workout in the upper registers. The chorus comes in three flavors: full, small, and children’s. Men’s, women’s, and children’s choruses all get their own opportunities to solo.

This was a good Carmina Burana, but it fell several steps short of being a great one. Zubin Mehta has clearly thought out his approach to the work, yet though there was nothing wrong with his tempi it seemed episodic instead of a flowing whole. The dance sections weren’t quite irresistible enough; the thoughtful parts were insufficiently introspective.

The red-jacketed Chicago Children’s Choir, under the direction of William Chin, was properly pure of tone and correct of rhythm. Duain Wolfe’s adult chorus sounded stunning when everyone sang together, but there were distracting blend problems within the small group, which also sometimes failed to change words and cut off together.

The soloists sometimes seem almost like an afterthought, but two of the three assembled here were very good. Tenor Frank Lopardo, who’s familiar to audiences at the opera house, was making his CSO debut. The tenor gets to sing only the vocally unrewarding (yet very funny) song of the roasted swan, but Lopardo’s appropriately glum acting and robust singing were a small treasure. Danish baritone Boje Skovhus, also making his first appearance with the orchestra, was a find, his voice snarling or limpid as the words required.

The major demands on the soprano soloist are that she sustain a long line and float a couple of exquisite piano high notes; her “Dulcissime,” coming at the end of the almost orgasmic “Tempus est iocundum,” should come as a sweet end to all that energy. Janet Williams fulfilled neither requirement, breathing where no breath was indicated and blowing every high note that came her way.

Since the hour-long Carmina Burana is a little short even by today’s Concert Lite standard, there was some first-half filler in the form of Schubert’s Symphony no. 6, the “Little” C Major. Not to be confused with the “Great” C Major, this is the one that sounds so Rossinian you expect a storm sequence. Mehta’s tempi were on the stodgy side, but the work was played well enough. The most notable aspect of the performance was the exceedingly long pause the conductor took between the first two movements, in evident protest of the audience choosing to emulate a TB ward as soon as the music stopped.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jim Steere.