Seraphic Fire brings raw lusty fervor to “Carmina Burana”

By David Fleshler

As with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Carl Orff’s oratorio Carmina Burana is one of those works instantly recognizable to people who know little classical music. The dramatic, hard-driving chorus O Fortuna has been used in countless film scores, and the work’s enduring popularity was evident in the sold-out house for Seraphic Fire’s performance Friday night in Fort Lauderdale.

All Saints Episcopal Church, where a large cross hung directly over the chorus, was as incongruous a setting imaginable for this setting of decidedly secular medieval texts celebrating food, wine and love by a 20th-century German composer who was one of the favorites of the Nazi cultural hierarchy. A man eager to get along with those in charge, Orff even complied with a Nazi Party request to compose alternative incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace that of the ethnically unacceptable Felix Mendelssohn.

But this man of ambiguous character produced a powerful, moving oratorio, and Seraphic Fire gave a virtuoso performance with a particularly strong set of soloists. The performance repeats tonight at the Arsht Center in Miami. (A performance scheduled for Sunday in Tampa has been canceled.)

Carmina Burana is normally performed with a large orchestra, but Seraphic Fire used a chamber arrangement approved by the composer for two pianos and–crucially–a full percussion battery that included tambourines, triangles, cymbals, drums and other instruments.

The choir itself was augmented to 25 singers, and as often happens when Seraphic Fire deploys larger vocal forces than usual, there was some loss of precision and finesse. Seraphic Fire still gave a more sensitive performance than is often heard with this work, although the singing actually benefited from a rawer, less civilized edge than is customarily heard from the ultra-polished ensemble.

The opening chorus O Fortuna came off in a more restrained, subtly phrased manner than the more common all-out aural assault heard at the movies. But at the close of the work, where it returns, the choir performed it that much more volume and power, giving the performance a genuinely climactic ending. The chorus Veni, Veni Venias was a pulsing, sensuous tribute to a lover’s beauty, with Swaz Hie Gat Umbre providing another vigorous celebration of fleshly happiness.

Among soloists there were several standouts. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, brought a rich, deeply expressive voice to the celebrated solo In trutina, endowing the words with great depth of feeling Tenor Matthew Tresler, in his eighth season with Seraphic Fire, gave a brilliant performance of Aestuans Interius, low and urgent at the beginning and sensuous and gleaming as he ascended the vocal scale.

Justin Thomas Blackwell and Scott Allen Jarrett handled the piano parts with skill.

Seraphic Fire’s artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley has been sick for the past several days, and Friday conducted while seated on a high-backed stool. During rehearsals, he relied heavily on bass-baritone and chorus master James Bass, who shared bows with him at the end.

Quigley faced the tension between Orff’s character and his work head on. After the performance, he raised his hand to quiet the applause and spoke a bit about the careerist streak in Orff’s personality that had allowed him to move easily through the Nazi cultural world. And then he offered as an encore Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring in an arrangement by the British pianist Myra Hess, who became famous during World War II for the lunchtime concerts she organized in London during the Blitz. This gentle music made a satisfying concluding contrast to the pagan lustiness of Orff’s score.

Seraphic Fire’s performance of Carmina Burana repeats 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall in Miami.; 305-949-6722.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Seraphic Fire brings raw lusty fervor to “Carmina Burana””

  1. Posted Jan 08, 2011 at 4:08 pm by Bernard

    Fascinating.. I’ve never heard Carmina Burana performed with only a chamber arrangement. Was Seraphic Fire’s performance recorded or can one get this on CD?

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Sat Jan 8, 2011
at 12:29 pm
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