Carmina Burana and Barber's Violin Concerto at the UNCSA
By Peter Perret
October 31, 2015 - Winston-Salem, NC:
Huge forces were called to the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem to bring the ever-popular Carmina Burana of Carl Orff to stage. It was preceded by an excellent performance of Samuel Barber's increasingly popular Violin Concerto, Op. 14, by Kevin Murphy, a recent UNCSA Concerto Competition winner.
The Barber Concerto was written in a leisurely fashion while Barber was on vacation in Switzerland in 1939, but he had to curtail his stay due to the worsening political situation in Germany. He had completed the first two movements, but not the last, by the time he returned to the U.S. Although the original commissioning patron had sued for a longer third movement, the relatively short finale, Presto in moto perpetuo, is now the accepted third movement.
The concerto opened gently with an introduction featuring the violin from the first note. A pizzicato ushered in the main Allegro which allowed us to appreciate the warm lush tone of soloist Murphy. Intonation was excellent, with only one moment of indeterminate pitch in the highest register. The second movement began with gorgeous muted strings and a lovely even-toned oboe solo played by Lindsay Wiley. This movement has the most satisfying solo-writing and the best-rendered climax of the concerto. The Finale is indeed a perpetual motion movement if there ever was one – and the precision of both soloist and orchestra were impressive!
Carmina Burana never fails to draw an audience, even on Halloween, and it never leaves that audience unsatisfied! The raw rhythms, infectious melodies and bawdy texts (projected overhead) strike a visceral chord in even the most sophisticated auditor. Ann Powers, writing in the NY Times, called the work "pop Gothic." Other commentators are less generous, citing the lack of serious musical content or of counterpoint (what made Bach and most "classical" composers famous). Eventually destined to be the first of three "triumphant cantatas with visual aspects," Carmina Burana is without a doubt the best-known work of the Bavarian composer, Carl Orff, who has also lent his name to a music education approach comparable to the Suzuki, Dalcroze Eurhythmics, and Kodály systems.
Written in the mid-1930s, the work makes use of some just-discovered medieval texts in demotic Latin, old French and middle German. Picking and choosing about two dozen texts out of more than 200, Orff devised a work lamenting the devastation of Fate and extolling the ephemeral events of Springtime, drink, gluttony, lust and love, ending with a verbatim recap of the original (and famous) lament of Fate ("O Fortuna"). Needless to say, the opening lament has entered the social media in a big way (see André Rieu). And in 1986, using pre-recorded music, the UNCSA School of Dance produced a full-length ballet to Carmina Burana, choreographed by Richard Kuch and Richard Gain.
The combined forces of the large UNCSA Student Orchestra (96 strong) and Cantata Singers (42 singers), plus the Winston Salem Symphony Chorale (91 singers) and the Winston Salem Youth Chorus (32 singers) put a formidable ensemble of over 200 performers, all under the precise and often minimalistic direction of Maestro Christopher James Lees, on the stage (and in the front rows) of the Joan Hanes Theater of the Stevens Center for the performance of Orff's masterpiece. Three outstanding Fletcher Fellows from the stellar graduate opera program of UNCSA sang the evocative (and provocative) solos with appropriate panache, sizzle and lust.
The largest part of the solos came the way of Joshua Conyers, an imposing tall singer with a gorgeous and malleable baritone voice with which he was able to herald spring (and her fever) as well as coax us into believing he was the drunken Abbot of Cockaigne. Each time I hear this voice, it reveals new possibilities. This is a real talent to follow!
Megan Ann Cleaveland, soprano, had the most awaited solo ("Dulcissime"), with a leap of a major 9th, while the entire hall held its breath, marveling at the rich color of this soprano, and the even higher embroidery as she yielded herself to her lover. What beauty Ms. Cleaveland brought this performance!
Simon Petersson, probably never contemplated eating a roasted swan, much less being one – and even less, singing about it from the pan and even the platter! This extremely high (castrato?) writing actually suited Petersson's voice to a "T" – pity the muted trumpet who doubled his part didn't play softer so we could appreciate his presence and diction!
Intonation plagued several orchestral sections, in long sustained sections ("pedal tones") – horns, especially in the "Floret Silva" section, and clarinets in the orchestral "Reie." There seemed to be a general disdain for the oboe's "A" and only the strings took the actual pitch; the winds and brass preferring to tune to "the tune of another piper!"
The combined choruses and the "small chorus" both sounded marvelous and the children's chorus was exceptionally clear and precise. There were many occasions to appreciate the women's chorus and the men's chorus independently and both sounded strong.
It is this writer's hope that casual listeners who found Carmina Burana very attractive will pursue their passion and perhaps discover some new works such as Les Noces (Stravinsky, 1923) and the Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky, 1930).
The program will be repeated in the Stevens Center on Sunday, November 1, at 3 p.m. For details, see the sidebar.