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Thursday, October 4, 2012

Concert Review: This Wheel's on Fire

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opens Carnegie Hall with Carmina Burana.
Your host for Wheel of Fortune: Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti.
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra opened both the 2012-2013 Carnegie Hall season and and a three-night stand at the famous New York concert venue on Wednesday, Oct. 3. The choice of repertory: Carl Orff's epic 20th century choral work Carmina Burana, under the baton of music director Riccardo Muti.

Orff's blend of choral drinking songs, pseudo-medieval dances and operatic arias has remained popular since the work's 1938 premiere. However, due to the pop-culture omnipresence of the chorus O Fortuna that opens and closes this hour-long piece, Carmina Burana (the title means "Songs of Bavaria") has something of a mixed reputation. The piece continues to draw scorn from critics and cognoscenti for its catchy melodies, simple structures and a conspicuous lack of thematic development in each of its twenty-five sections.

Those perceived weaknesses became strengths under Mr. Muti's direction. The fiery Italian seemed almost sedate during the opening O Fortuna, barely lifting his arms to direct the choristers as the musicans pounded out the familiar ostinato rhythm. But as the cycle continued, Mr. Muti used his experience in opera and symphonic repertory to carve these granite-like blocks of sound into sharp reliefs showing the details of Orff's medieval world.

Each sub-set of songs had its own distinctive tinta as Mr. Muti drew different shades of sound from his vast forces. The bitter laments against the power of the medieval goddess of Fortune were played in shades of black and gray, with the deep male voices of the Chicago Symphony Chorus dominating. In Springtime was brighter, with bouncing, percussive rhythms that wouldn't sound out of place at a Renaissance fair.

In the Tavern consists of four songs, with difficult solos for the tenor and baritone. Countertenor Antonio Giovannini had a choked, almost watery sound for Olim lacis coelarum, the aria sung by a roasting swan who has to squawk three high Ds. Baritone Audun Iversen fared better with Ergo sum abbas ("I am the Abbot of Cockaigne.") He moved nimbly through Orff's tricky rhythms and used his flexible instrument to good effect.

In the Courts of Love is the largest section of Carmina Burana, a wide-ranging collection of songs dealing with love: medieval style. Soprano Rosa Feola was featured here, soaring to astonishing heights in Dulcissime with a pure, silvery tone and a smooth legato. Mr. Muti also proved adept at directing the Chicago Children's Choir, who offered cherub-like commentary from the their perch in the first tier of boxes during two of the songs.

When Orff's cycle completed its revolution (with a reprise of O Fortuna) Mr. Muti was much more animated. He exhorted the choristers to greater volume, leaned forward and pulled the timpani notes and cymbal strikes out of the air, and unleashed a powerful storm of sound as the work crashed and juddered through its final bars. Carmina Burana remains popular classical music, but with a performance like this one, Orff's work is elevated to the level of symphonic art.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.