Classical music, like life in general, abounds in so-called guilty pleasures. You know, the kind of stuff that you may not admit to friends that you like, but in the privacy of your own iPod earbuds, you relish with abandon. Warsaw Concerto is one for me. Carmina Burana is another one. Not a whole lot of people know Warsaw Concerto, but everyone knows Carmina Burana, whether they actually realize that they know it or not. It is this relative ubiquity that makes “serious” musical fans scoff Scoff SCOFF when Orff’s cantata shows up on programs.
“Spend your time listening to something deeper, more profound. Like the Mahler Eighth Symphony,” an uber-intellectual friend once told me.
As it turns out, I like to think of Carmina Burana as the Mahler Eighth’s evil twin: both split their libretto between Latin and Deutsche, both start with a booming chord in the orchestra followed by a grand entrance by the chorus, and both benefit from being done big. Of course, where the Mahler Eighth is all radiance and redemption, Carmina Burana is decadence and debauchery. Mahler has the Virgin Mary, Orff has the drunken “Abbot of Cockaigne.”
There is a time and place for both.
Last Thursday was the time, and the stage beneath the oversized white arches of the Hollywood Bowl was the place for the churning, chugging sounds of Orff’s paen to the whims of fortune and the joys of gluttony, drink, and lust. The performance benefitted from some standout soloists, smooth and energetic ensemble work by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, all managed by the capable hands of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.
A noticeably thinner Mr. Frühbeck returned to the LA Phil podium after having to withdraw from a performance earlier this year due to illness. He conducted from a stool, standing when he wanted to offer a little extra emphasis. His gestures were efficient, even generic, but he always seemed to draw out clean and powerful performances from the orchestra despite his economy of movement. His pacing was broad and spacious in the biggest moments like the iconic “O Fortuna,” and more brisk and flowing elsewhere. The LA Phil was in top form, sounding as good as they have all summer. They probably benefitted from having an extra rehearsal and performance due to having repeated the same program from the previous Tuesday.
Despite the important contributions of the orchestra, a successful Carmina Burana is primarily reliant on the vocalists involved. For this performance, the mighty Los Angeles Master Chorale was on hand to stir things up. Grant Gershon’s forces sang with frightening power and tender sweetness as needed, with lyrics clearly enunciated throughout.
Three vocal soloists added personality and spice, with all giving earnest characterizations without allowing things to ever become slapstick. Baritone Hugh Russell imbued his many vocal roles with a rich, sensitive tone, playing off orchestra and chorus with attitude and excellent comic timing. Laura Claycomb was the stunning soprano, giving a convincing sense of innocence to go along with incredible touch and control throughout, most especially in a show-stopping vocal run in the “Dulcissime.” Tenor Nicholas Phan sang the brief and rather thankless high-voiced role of the roasting swan with just enough irony and without any astringency. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus sang their even briefer moment with charm.
The Orff cantata was not the only thing on the bill. The concert opened with selections from Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Skipping the familiar overture, Mr. Frühbeck chose five movements that ranged from charming (the Scherzo) to robust (the well-known Wedding March). Mezzo-Soprano Niké St. Clair nicely matched Ms. Claycomb as the two joined the Women of the Master Chorale in the song “Ye Spotted Snakes.”
Los Angeles Philharmonic: August 30, 2012; Hollywood Bowl
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Laura Claycomb, soprano
Niké St. Clair, mezzo-soprano
Nicholas Phan, tenor
Hugh Russell, baritone
Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, music director)
Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director)
Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Scherzo; Song w/ Chorus, “Ye Spotted Snakes” (Ms. Claycomb, Ms. St. Clair); Notturno; Wedding March; Finale
Orff: Carmina Burana (Ms. Claycomb, Mr. Phan, Mr. Russell)
Photo credits: JHB for All is Yar