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Saturday, June 2, 2012

Concert Review: Middle Ages, Spread

The Philharmonic takes on Carmina Burana.
The caption reads: "Virtue lies defeated."
(Note the wheel in the background.)
From El Club Dumas by Arturo Pérez-Réverte,
© 1993 Random House.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The performance of choral music is not the primary mission of the New York Philharmonic. In its long history, the orchestra has taken advantage of skilled choral ensembles and music directors (Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Masur) with a penchant for choral repertory.

On Thursday night, the Philharmonic presented the first of three concerts led by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, a veteran conductor acclaimed for his interpretations of choral and dramatic music. The program paired Atlantide, the final, unfinished cantata by Manuel de Falla, with Carl Orff's mighty Carmina Burana, an audience favorite. This was the orchestra's first performance of the Orff work since 1995.

In the interests of time and authenticity, Mr. Frühbeck chose to present Falla's completed, performable sketches instead of the whole three-act work. Atlantide requires two pianos and lush orchestration for its rich portrait of ocean exploration and the journeys of Christopher Columbus. Juilliard-trained soprano Emalie Savoy sang the pivotal Queen Elizabeth with rage and inner magnetism. However, despite the conductor's best efforts, the disconnected segments of the cantata failed to jell into a dramatic whole.

Carmina Burana ("Bavarian Songs") is not the most dramatically coherent work either. Its 24 songs, bookended by the famous "O Fortuna" chorus, are settings of a book of medieval song texts discovered by the composer in 1934. Thanks to the combined efforts of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, "O Fortuna" has become a ubiquitous part of pop culture. The work's inner components are less well known.

This is repertory rests squarely in Mr. Frühbeck's zone of expertise, rich writing for choral singers and pounding orchestral figures that never develop beyond their original thematic statements. The trick is to make these two dozen songs cohere into a dramatic whole, presenting images of courtly love, public drunkenness, and the omnipresent wheel of Fate.

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Orff assigned a difficult tenor and baritone part that are usually taken falsetto by the soloists.  Tenor Nicholas Phan was impressive, singing three full high D's in Olim lacus coluearum, ("Once I swam in lakes") the two-minute portrait of a swan about to be roasted on the spit. He also acted the part of the nervous bird, tugging at his collar Rodney Dangerfield-style before singing the last verse. Baritone Jacques Imbrailo sang full out in "Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis" (I am the Abbot of Cockaigne.") Soprano Erin Morley sang "Dulcissime" with sweet tone and her own difficult high notes intact.

Mr. Frühbeck conducted this music without a score, drawing taut phrases and pounding rhythms from the Philharmonic players. The choristers, all-important as the voice of medieval humanity, were the Orféon Pamplones, a Spanish ensemble making its Philharmonic debut. They bit into the text with gusto, creating a seething turmoil of sound in the big, climactic moments. The pianos, strings and percussion drove the point (or possibly the lack of one) home in an impressive fortissimo finish.

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