Sunday, August 19, 2012
Carmina Burana at Davies Hall
The San Francisco Choral Society, a large amateur chorus that sings with professional orchestras and soloists, performed a couple of nearly sold-out performances at Davies Hall this weekend of Carl Orff's crowd-pleasing "dramatic cantata" Carmina Burana.
The orchestra was a 50-plus-member ensemble called the California Chamber Symphony, and though there were a few rocky patches during Friday evening's performance, it didn't matter. They gave a lively, better than average performance that supported all the singers nicely.
The first half of the evening started with a dull snoozefest commissioned by the Choral Society in 2005 called Songs for the Earth by the 84-year-old Santa Barbara composer Emma Lou Diemer. The thirty-minute piece used six poems by everyone from Emily Dickinson to the composer's own sister Dorothy. Five of the very conservatively scored songs were for full chorus, while the poem from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam was sung by soloists Eugene Bronceanvanu and soprano Marnie Breckinridge above. Though the duet was dull, it was heartening to hear that both singers were in great voice.
Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is an odd duck, a 1937 dramatic cantata taken from poems and drinking songs written in bastardized Latin and Low German from the 11th to 13th centuries that were discovered in a Benedictine monastery in 1803. Orff put together a collection of 25 of these pieces, starting with the famous O Fortuna chorus that has been quoted, sampled, copied and overused in hundreds of movie, TV and videogame soundtracks. Partly because of its ubiquity, Carmina Burana is greatly beloved by audiences while scorned by many musicians and snobbish listeners. (Photo below is of Robert Geary, conductor and Artistic Director of SFCC.)
You can put me into the snob group since Carmina Burana was one of the first LPs I bought as a tween decades ago, along with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade and Rodrigo's guitar concertos on the suggestion of a record store clerk who was trying to be kind to a classical music newbie. The only problem was that on my own I discovered a set of Bruno Walter's complete Brahms symphonies (the mono version) and Bernstein's complete Mahler symphonies, and both Carmina Burana and Scheherezade soon sounded dull and hackneyed in comparison. (The Rodrigo guitar concertos, oddly enough, still delight me.)
So after having managed to go to a lifetime of live classical music concerts without seeing Carmina Burana, it finally seemed the right time to attend a performance, in part because I was curious how Ensemble Parallele's Brian Staufenbiel, above, would be staging the piece in Davies Hall while also performing the single, grotesque tenor solo about a swan who is being roasted in preparation for a meal (shades of early PETA). Staufenbiel carried the solo off just fine in a series of progressively darker outfits, and his direction of the pantomime on what looked to be a bare bones budget was sweet and effective.
The chorus wore their black formal wear during the first half and returned looking a bit like a Bible epic in their variously coloured scarves, which was charming. They also sang very well, including some of the softest pianissimos imaginable for such a large group, interspersed with the loud, percussive chanting style for which the piece is famous.
Between the Wheels of Fortune opening and close, Carmina Burana is broken up into three sections, starting with a pastorale, In The Meadow, which is when the seven-woman Perceptions Contemporary Dance Company above danced in front of the stage and up the orchestra section aisles. They occasionally gave each other lifts, Mark Morris gender-neutral style, and at other points looked like they were trying to channel Isadora Duncan. There were moments of silliness, but it worked well with the music.
Soloists Eugene Brancoveanu and Marnie Breckenridge (above right) acted their various roles convincingly in a series of costumes illustrating The Tavern and Courtly Love, and both of them sounded great, easily filling up Davies, which is not easy in that large hall. With contributions by the Contra Costa Children's Chorus led by Martin Benvenuto (above left next to Staufenbiel), the entire evening felt both grand and homespun.