157-voice chorus stands out in BSO's 'Carmina'

April 05, 1997|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Among music critics, it is fashionable to decry "Carmina Burana" as vulgar. Well, it is, if we remember that the Latin root of "vulgar" means "of the people."

"Carmina," Carl Orff's epic song cycle of medieval poems, has the virtues of immediacy and accessibility, which most composers would kill for. To Orff (1895-1982), who was by profession a music educator, these things came easily, for "Carmina" is constructed of the same building blocks as his Orffschulwerk musical exercises for children, expanded to an orchestral canvas.

The defense of a first-class orchestra, when it is accused of pandering to the public with "Carmina," is to give it a first-class reading. As performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, augmented by three soloists and a children's choir, all under the baton of conductor laureate Sergiu Comissiona, it's not quite first-class, but it's not quite steerage either.

Orff wrote "Carmina" in 1937, using as texts the existential marginalia of 12th-century monks and wandering minstrels called goliards. He found their poems to hedonism and hormones, written in Latin, Middle German and Provencal, in the Bavarian State Library. (The old name of Bavaria in Medieval German is Beuern, whence comes the "Burana" of the title.) And he set them as strophic songs with plain, folklike melodies and bold rhythms.

All this is clear in the choral side of the BSO's performance. The 157-voice chorus has been well prepared -- its diction is extraordinarily legible for so large an ensemble -- by its director, Edward Polochick. Two children's groups, the Children's Chorus Maryland and the youngest members of the choir of St. David's Episcopal Church in Roland Park, were as clean and musically careful as they come.

The soloists were decent, occasionally more. Soprano Andrea Matthews' light voice gleamed in her hymns to carnal love. Israeli tenor David De'or went to the unheard-of lengths of memorizing his one solo, "Olim lacus colueram," the song of the roasted swan, and avoided the usual strangulated sound by singing its ** highest passages in a sweet falsetto.

Chinese-American baritone Zheng Zhou glided through his more lyric numbers, but his voice is really too small for the robust ballads to wine and women. Even so, you probably could have heard more of him if the orchestra had been kept in check. Has Comissiona forgotten the concept of balance? Or is the sound so different on the stage that he really couldn't hear how badly he overrode the hapless singer?

The orchestra's playing was routine, even unkempt in places. There were some exceptions: the flute solos of Emily Skala; and the reie, solemn yet sensuous.

The playing was tighter for the concert's first half, the 28-minute "Gloria" of Orff's contemporary, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963).

This setting of the hymn of praise from the Roman Catholic Mass, composed in 1961 for the Boston Symphony, is a lovely thing, jubilant yet stately. Soprano Janice Chandler sang the solos (written for the great Adele Addison) with unforced celestial beauty, especially the "Domine Deus," which floats away at the end of each of its pleading phrases. And Comissiona exacted from the orchestra that special Poulenc sound, with its airy brass and bright harmonies.

'Carmina Burana'

What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.

When: 8 tonight

Tickets: $19-$52

Call: 410-783-8000

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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