Without realizing it, most people know Orff’s monolithic masterpiece Carmina Burana. The first movement (which the composer also brings back at the end) is commonly used at sporting events, in movies, on television, commercials on the radio…you get the point. Along with Beethoven’s famous “knock of fate” motive from the Fifth Symphony and Mozart’s half-steps that open The Marriage of Figaro, “O Fortuna” has invaded the cultural zeitgeist and been installed as a theme song of sorts to signify power.
The Fort Worth Symphony is closing their 2012-13 season with a retelling of Orff’s massive work for orchestra and chorus while adding yet another new work to the orchestral repertoire. (And interestingly, the Dallas Symphony also closes their season with the work, next week.)
The concert opened with the world premiere of Jimmy López’s Perú negro. The work takes its structure and motivic material from the Peruvian-African tradition, blending intricate cross rhythms and dance structures together to form a unique performance. The piece was expertly performed by the orchestra, highlighted by excellent solo work by principal horn Mark Houghton as well as featuring the percussion section. Once again, the Fort Worth Symphony shows its dedication to adding new works to the orchestral canon with the piece; engaging a quality composer such as López to write for the orchestra adds an additional relevance to the occasion and doubles down on the commitment to keep the oeuvre of symphonic music alive.
After an intermission, the orchestra returned to the stage for Carmina Burana, joined onstage by a combined choir of voices from the Arlington Master Chorale (Randy Jordan, chorus master), the Fort Worth Choral Society (Keith Crow, chorus master), the Southwestern Seminary Master Chorale (David R. Thye, chorus master), the Texas Boys Choir (S. Bryan Priddy, chorus master), and the Texas Wesleyan Chorale (Jerome M. Bierschenk, chorus master). The choir was exceptionally well prepared, coming together to form a unified sound that was luscious in tone and very easy to understand. Due to the seating arrangement onstage, the Boys choir members were actually seated antiphonally in the lowest two boxes that flank the stage; it actually added to the performance, giving a nice dimension to the sections where Orff used the child voice in conjunction with the soprano soloist.
Finishing out the performing forces were the three soloists: soprano Cyndia Sieden, countertenor Michael Maniaci and baritone Philip Cutlip.
Maniaci must have drawn the short end of the stick, but he equated himself marvelously. Orff only wrote a single song for the voice part, coming a little before halfway in the work; so the performer had to sit for a good while, stand and sing for three minutes, then return to his seat to wait out the rest of the performance. But what a three minutes it was.
Maniaci splendidly showed off his countertenor chops with a crisp, pleasing tone that eschewed the harshness found in other countertenors. Seiden was equally as thrilling, performing with a silky, sweet tone that reinforced the delicacy of Orff’s writing for the soprano; ultimately she added poignant counterpoint to the more dramatic performers that balance out Orff’s work as a whole, keeping it from sliding into the melodramatic. The final performer, Cutlip, was a bit uneven during the Saturday night performance. His lower register was bold and dramatic, easily cutting through the orchestral sound to declaim his performance. However, he struggled through the night with his topmost register; the top two pitches sounded strained and almost cracked. It is an extremely difficult role to sing—and with our normal North Texas spring in full swing (I’m looking at you, pollen count)—Cutlip suffered slightly.
The real star of the show, however, was the orchestra itself. Led by conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the ensemble deftly navigated the score while adding a sense of true depth to the music. If one were to head to the music store, you’d find dozens and dozens of recordings of this work—much like Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second, Carmina is a work that appears to be a rite of passage for recording ensembles. Sadly, many of these recordings fail to move past the idea of the work as a big block of musical granite. On the surface, Orff’s orchestrational style lends itself big blocks of sound in opposition. But there is added depth in the style for anyone who looks for it; cutting through the big wall of sound is essential for a nuanced performance of the piece.
The sound produced by the orchestra was all that could be asked for: emotional, noble, and balanced. Because of this attention to all aspects of the score, the Fort Worth Symphony pulled off a triumphant finale, moving beyond the simplistic reading and presenting art.