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TV Preview: PBS makes vibrant show of 'Carmina Burana'

Wednesday, June 13, 2001

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

"O fortuna!"

Those opening words of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" have proved strangely prophetic. An unlikely work to have become one of the most popular choral pieces in the repertory, "Carmina Burana" is a setting of 13th-century Latin and German lyrics relating to the pleasures of the flesh -- nature, tavern, love -- simulating a medieval manner within a 20th-century idiom.

Orff's score -- first heard in Frankfurt in 1937 -- is at once simple-minded and sophisticated. From the concert hall to TV commercials, its primal rhythms, animal energy and simple melodic and harmonic language are now familiar worldwide. This is, in a way, curious, in light of the fact that Orff (1895-1982) was a staunch German whose career benefited directly from the good will of the Third Reich. Although Orff was "de-Nazified" after World War II, the argument continues. In a New York Times piece last month, author Richard Taruskin reopened the discussion, condemning the composer-educator for -- if not direct association with the National Socialists -- at least a kind of amoral opportunism that manifested itself in his most successful works.

"Carmina Burana" and "Chichester Psalms"

When: 8:30 tonight on WQED.



The Nazi regime was likely drawn to the visceral, crowd-rousing elements (which still make their mark on audiences of today), as well as the pagan, anti-church message. There's not much that's subtle about this music. Taruskin points out that the scores of "Carmina Burana" and its sequels -- "Catulli Carmina" and "The Triumph of Aphrodite" -- were derivative to the near point of plagiarism (mostly from Stravinsky's "Les Noces"). Still, they maintain their primitive appeal and take a high degree of technical proficiency -- a well-trained choir, large orchestra and operatically trained soloists -- to carry off.

Tonight at 8:30, WQED will air "Carmina Burana" as part of a Cincinnati May Festival showcase conducted by James Conlon. The performance is about as accomplished as any we're likely to hear. Conlon, who has led this festival since 1979, is one of the very top American conductors -- too infrequently seen in this country because he is so successful in Europe, as principal conductor of the Paris Opera and general music director of the city of Cologne. It is, incidentally, not inappropriate for Conlon to be performing "Carmina Burana" in one of the most German cities in the United States.

In this telecast, filmed last year, Cincinnati's May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, is first-rate. The three vocal soloists -- much of whose music is excruciatingly high -- execute their tasks with spectacular vocal dexterity. The incisive choral-orchestral rendition of the "Ecce gratum" section quite brilliantly offsets the chant-like lyricism of the male chorus that precedes it. Baritone Richard Paul Fink, who has the most to sing among the soloists, is adept in the serene "Omnia sol temperat" and equally so in the lusty "Estuans interius," later on. Tenor Donald Kaasch, whose unique moment portrays the thoughts of a pig roasting on the spit, manages his stratospheric wails with legitimate vocalism that never resorts to faking with falsetto. Soprano Suni Jo, who provides the work's musical and erotic climax in the "Court of Love," is sensuous, exquisite in sound and musically always on the mark.

Significantly, Conlon balances the content of "Carmina Burana" by opening the program with a thoughtful, moving rendition of Leonard Bernstein's Hebrew-ecumenical "Chichester Psalms." With the Cincinnati Boychoir a major part of the proceedings, this is also a work of direct appeal, although its contemplative character may seem at first to be the very opposite of Orff's blatant clamor.

Bernstein's score is more exposed than Orff's, pointing up an occasional unevenness of line, or a flaw in the choral intonation. But the solos by 10-year-old boy soprano James Danner -- a member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus -- have a purity that comes through as innocence incarnate.

Thursday, June 07, 2001

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