A grand and imposing “Carmina Burana” closes Festival Miami in style

By David Fleshler

Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” was performed Sunday at the Arsht Center conducted by Karen Kennedy.

Festival Miami ended grandly, energetically and loudly Sunday with a performance for choruses, soloists and orchestra of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

This secular cantata, composed in Germany in the late 1930s to medieval poems on the earthy concerns of love, drinking, gambling and fate is among the world’s most popular choral works. Even those who have never heard of Orff know the thundering Carmina Burana chorus O Fortuna from its presence in movies and TV shows.

The performance in Miami was one of mammoth scale, with the University of Miami’s Frost Symphony Orchestra, Master Chorale of South Florida, Frost Chorale, Florida Singing Sons Boychoir and three vocal soloists assembled at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. Doing a fine job leading this huge assemblage, which took up the stage and all the rows of seats above it, was the Master Chorale’s conductor Karen Kennedy, whose short tenure with the ensemble will be ending this season.

Much of Carmina Burana‘s power comes from an almost primitive reliance on rhythm, and Kennedy drew a vigorous and articulated performance from the massed voices. The performance opened with a majestic and weighted chorus, giving way to a pulsing, quiet and ominous statement of the O Fortuna theme. Kennedy brought out the inner voices in the orchestra, the crackling figures in wind and brass that added complexity to the texture without leading to confusion.

Although the size of the vocal ensemble made it difficult for every passage to come off with knife-edge precision, the singers never allowed any passage to degenerate into unintelligible muddiness. The young vocalists of the Florida Singing Sons Boychoir distinguished themselves in the song Amor volat undique,  singing with pure tones, excellent intonation and crisp unity.

Of the three strong soloists, the baritone David Newman was the standout. His Estuans interius was expressive, urgent and almost operatic in its sense of drama. The tenor James Hall sang the well-known Olim lacus colueram, the lament of a roasted swan about to be served for dinner, with surprising vocal beauty for a work that sends the tenor way over his normal range, and he brought a much-needed dose of humor to a work that can sometimes come off as too solemn for its content. The soprano Ah Young Hong sang with rounded, sweet tones, particularly in the poignant love song In trutina.

The concert opened with a performance by the Frost Symphony Orchestra of Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, considered one of the most technically difficult works for orchestra and a daunting undertaking for a student ensemble. The string parts are especially demanding, calling for extremely rapid playing over a wide range, and they regularly turn up on the repertoire required for string players auditioning for professional orchestras.

Conductor Thomas Sleeper set a tempo that made no concession to the inexperience of his musicians, and they acquitted themselves surprisingly well. The musicians had clearly practiced hard, and if the runs didn’t exactly sparkle, the notes were there and the playing had a fearlessness that gave the performance a plenty of energy. Robust and accurate playing in the horns added to the effectiveness of the performance. Under Sleeper’s direction, the orchestra achieved a real sense of Straussian languor and longing in the work’s long lines of Romantic melody.

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Sun Nov 4, 2012
at 11:36 pm
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