Dallas — Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is polarizing. On the one hand, it’s hugely crowd-pleasing, and is a boon for ticket sales. On the other, it’s frequently (okay, very frequently) programmed, so lots of musicians and critics are justifiably tired of playing and reviewing it.
I am not one of those critics.
Yes, it’s quite true that Carmina lacks harmonic complexity. It’s true that it’s bombastic and rather silly. But 400 or so musicians and singers onstage, launching into “O Fortuna”? The sonic bath that is Carmina Burana has yet to get cold for me. Maybe someday that will happen, but now, the joy in listening to this has for me only been outstripped by the joy of playing it. It’s the orchestral equivalent of early Beach Boys or Beatles. Yeah, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Little Deuce Coupe” aren’t Pet Sounds or Sergeant Pepper, nor is Carmina Burana Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or the Mahler 8—but it’s still good, speaker-rattling fun.
When it’s performed as well as it was Friday evening by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Meyerson, that joy is multiplied. Conductor Nicholas Carter, at 30 years old in his first season as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, does not yet produce the same level of meticulous precision from the Dallas Symphony and especially from the chorus as do some other conductors. The sopranos in the chorus were a little shrill in their upper registers in louder dynamics. But these are small quibbles. The children’s chorus was particularly well-prepared. Nicholas Phan was an amusing Roasted Swan, hamming it (erm, swanning it?) up in his one aria. He even wore a white dinner jacket with black lapels—the white swan now “black/ And roasted to a turn!” Noel Bouley’s baritone was just right— self-important as the abbot, but abashed as the longing lover. Likewise, Kathryn Lewek employed a lovely, relatively unadorned soprano well-suited to her role as the young girl deciding between chastity and desire.
While most of the audience was no doubt there to hear Carmina, the first half of the program was, if anything, even more wonderful. Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral has become a contemporary-music standby—according to her website, it has been performed over 600 times since its 2000 premiere, which for a work by a living woman composer could be a record. There are good reasons for this piece’s frequency in the rotation. The music is simultaneously accessible, moving, beautiful, and complex. The orchestra and individual players handled most of those complexities with grace. Nathan Olson’s solo turn was gorgeous, with a big but never compressed sound, while David Matthew’s tone and phrasing on English horn was luscious.
The chorus was already in place for Carmina Burana, which allowed for a brilliant stroke of programming—placing Brahms’s Schicksalslied for Chorus and Orchestra immediately before intermission. This piece was written shortly after Ein deutsches Requiem, and shares much in common musically with its larger-scale cousin. However, the Schicksalslied is set to a secular poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, and its performance time is only about 15 minutes compared to the Requiem’s hour and a quarter. However splendid this piece is on its own, it also made me very eager to hear Ein deutsches Requiem, which the DSO is performing in October under Jaap Van Zweden’s baton. In Friday’s performance, while brass and strings in particular did not have quite the tight ensemble we’ve come to expect, overall the performance was glorious. Phrasing and dynamic contrasts were dramatic without being exaggerated.
Carmina quickly sold out; but it will come around again soon, no doubt.