Saturday, June 10, 2017

ISO displays fine partnership with Indianapolis Symphonic Choir in music of Orff and Bernstein

Chances are few people would be aware of the complexity of the Middle Ages if "Carmina Burana" had not been written and gone on to achieve worldwide popularity over the past eight decades.

Carl Orff, a German composer of a personally secretive nature who is almost as well known as a trailblazing music educator as for this work, got from Goliard poetry that had been stored at a monastery in Bavaria glimpses of medieval counterculture that nearly everybody has taken to their bosoms ever since. There is a pagan celebration of nature in bloom, considerable irreverence toward kings and priests, a celebration of lasciviousness and heavy drinking, and other age-old, ineradicable deviations from uprightness.

All this is subjected to sonically varied but basically simple musical treatment: lots of repetition, short phrases, unfashionable adherence to tonality, and in places almost as much overloading of rhythmic accents as today's hip-hop. As such, the cantata is looked down upon by many devotees of classical music, some of whom declare they'd rather never hear it again.

But here it is as the centerpiece of the final weekend in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's 2016-17 Classical Series. The piece is supremely effective, and it's hard to deny that much 20th-century music — even that representing the highest level of compositional skill and resourcefulness — has remained ineffective with the public. 

Krzysztof Urbanski has four performances of Bernstein and Orff this weekend.
Effectiveness in this case means absolute suitability of means to ends: Orff's music, driving and lyrical by turns, achieves an amazing symbiosis with the Latin and medieval German texts. This was illustrated throughout the ISO's second performance of the cantata Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre; the schedule offers a rare instance of the ISO's repeating the same program three times in as many days.

Krzysztof Urbanski conducted a performance in which sustained attention to rhythmic clarity was evident both vocally and orchestrally. Once again, collaboration with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir, with Eric Stark celebrating 15 years as its artistic director, was exemplary. Only when the men were enumerating different kinds of people they were toasting in drink did I detect some blurring; despite the bibulous context, even such passages should be well-defined. Otherwise, the choir's singing shone like fine crystal in sunlight. There was extra choral focus put upon phrases that benefit from staccato articulation, starting with the crying out against cruel Fortune in the familiar opening (and closing) chorus, "O Fortuna." Later on, members of the Indianapolis Children's Choir gave an extra-youthful lift to some of the amorous music.

Baritone soloist Jochen Kupfer
The production benefits from three excellent soloists. Most of the responsibility falls to the baritone, Jochen Kupfer, who is making his ISO debut. Deft as both actor and singer, Kupfer commands the torturous falsetto required in the self-pitying aria, "Dies, nox et omnia," seamlessly joined to his normal voice. He had earlier shown the bravado of another category of drunkard, the feisty take-on-all-comers type, in "I am the abbot of Cockaigne" (to translate from the Latin). There was also some comic byplay with concertmaster Zach De Pue (coincidentally winner of this year's Patch Award) involving snuck shots of mock-Schnapps across the podium. 

None of this business, as suitable as it was, ought to detract from the likelihood that Kupfer is the best baritone soloist the ISO has invited since Thomas Hampson several seasons ago.

The tenor soloist, Vale Rideout, sang with desperate appeal the demanding showpiece — a monologue by a swan being turned on a spit and feeling the fire — from several places in the stage terrace and among the choir. 

Soprano soloist Lauren Snouffer grew into her role after a bland initial appearance, ending gloriously with a strong declaration of love in the altissimo range to bring the cantata up to its splendid choral culmination, "Ave formossissima" and the unforgettable "O Fortuna."

The companion piece on this program is Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms," a thoroughly religious expression drawing on several Psalms in their original Hebrew. (I'm not sure why the ISO is promoting "Carmina Burana" as "both sacred and profane"; I find nary a touch of the sacred about it.)

The Bernstein piece featured a children's-choir member soloing in the second movement. Camden Zetty performed superbly in lines drawn from the 23rd Psalm, probably the best-known of the book's 150. 

The interpretation Urbanski fashioned overall was as sensitive to the varied moods of the Psalmist (reinforced by Bernstein) as Orff was to the panoply of profane emotions, just as heartfelt, that permeate "Carmina Burana."