A rousing “Carmina Burana” closes Grant Park Music Festival in style

Sat Aug 18, 2018 at 12:30 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Claire de Sévigné was the soprano soloist in Orff’s “Carmina Burana” Friday night at the Grant Park Music Festival. Photo: Norman Timonera

After a supremely inspired summer of concerts, the Grant Park Music Festival is closing this weekend on a comparably high note with Carl Orff’s theatrical showpiece for soloists, chorus and large orchestra, Carmina Burana. 

But first—as they say in radio—was a bit of surprisingly dark Dvořák to open Friday night’s concert at the Pritzker Pavilion. Carlos Kalmar has been steadily working his way through the Czech composer’s late symphonic poems and the evening opened with the first in the series, The Water Goblin.

All four of these works were inspired by grisly Czech folk tales from Karel Jaromir Erben—stories so bleak and violent that, as Kalmar said, “they make the Grimm Brothers seem like Mickey Mouse.” 

The Water Goblin is in the same vein, painting the tale of the malign aquatic creature who abducts a young girl and forces her to live with him and bear his child. When the girl goes back to visit her mother and fails to return, the monster comes banging on the door. The girl opens it only to find the decapitated body of her child on the doorstep. Fun.

These late tone poems are Dvořák’s final masterpieces. The composer’s scoring dexterity and melodic richness are there, notably in the touching theme for the young girl. But there is also a new, more pungent harmonic bite and a rhythmic angularity closely allied to Czech folk music. In these tightly woven works, Dvořák almost seems to be opening up a musical path for Leoš Janáček’s operas to come.

Somewhat uncharacteristically, Kalmar underplayed the work’s violence in favor of a more cohesive and nuanced reading. Yet there was ample driving intensity in the goblin’s aggressive theme as well as affecting tenderness in the girl’s delicate motif. The quiet tragedy of the final bars was effectively rendered in the trailing, dying flute phrases and hushed pianissimo pizzicatos. Apart from some watery winds in the early going, the Grant Park musicians were at their finest in this brooding, atmospheric performance.

Is there a stranger work in the concert canon than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana? As Kalmar noted in his opening remarks, for all its popularity this hour-long showcase for chorus and orchestra remains a genuine outlier—an audacious melding of monastic 13th-century texts with 20th-century craft—and composed in the roiling cauldron of 1930’s Germany, no less.

Even now Carmina Burana sounds like nothing else in its primal—at times, primitive—rhythms and raw sonic bombast. Orff’s “profane cantata” feels very contemporary with its caustic, unromantic skepticism about life: the wheel of fortune will spin endlessly for all, and one can only take fleeting pleasures in the earthy pursuits of drinking, gambling, sex and, perhaps, even love.

One could hardly conceive a finer vehicle for Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra & Chorus to close the summer concert season than Orff’s bizarro choral showpiece. Kalmar led a performance of surging vitality and tremendous verve, the climaxes for chorus and orchestra almost overwhelming in sonic impact. 

Yet the conductor and musicians also balanced the excess with a compensating lightness and intimacy. The Spring Dance (“On the Green”) went with a buoyant lilt and the young singers of Anima brought pure and angelic singing to the “Court of Love” opening section.

The trio of soloists was largely excellent if with a few uneven moments Friday night.

Claire de Sévigné’s lovely, refined voice made “In Trutina” the ethereal centerpiece it should be, though a smoother legato line would have made it better still. The Canadian soprano displayed surprising reserves of vocal power and flexibility, with a stunning attack on the stratospheric coloratura of the penultimate “Dulcissime.”

Michael Maniaci opted for quirky subtlety in his roasted swan solo, singing with a sweet, mellifluous countertenor. His awkward, diffident stage manner as the slow-roasted cygne proved much funnier than the usual, forced comic overkill.

The baritone gets most of the solo opportunities in Carmina Burana and festival regular James Westman sang with an attractive, burnished voice throughout. 

Yet the Canadian singer couldn’t seem to find a comfortable balance between concert decorum and overt theatricality. With his bland, conversational approach to the ardent springtime love ode, (“Omnia sol temperat”) Westman could been singing a monk’s text about how to brew mead. Likewise, there was little “boiling rage” in his lukewarm tavern song (“Estuans interius”).

Westman seemed to find his footing as the night unfolded. He deftly painted a bibulous abbot trying unsuccessfully to be dignified in “Ego sum Abbas” and showed more expressive engagement with the rejected lover of “Dies, nox et omina,” displaying an impressive falsetto in the high, curling lines.

Like Westman, the Grant Park Chorus, prepared for these performances by Benjamin Rivera, took a while to find the zone Friday night.  The opening “O fortuna” and Springtime section for half-chorus (“Veris leta facies”) were jarringly slack and pedestrian, not boding well for the evening.

While the ensemble didn’t always evince the high sheen and corporate polish which Christopher Bell routinely elicits from them, the singing improved as the performance continued. The Grant Park singers handled some breakneck tempos with striking virtuosity and put across the big climaxes with sonic punch and intensity. The orchestra turned in one of their finest outings of the summer across all sections with terrific brass playing all night and thrilling trumpets that soared over the massed ensemble.

However the unceasing wheel of fortune may turn, let us hope that the treasurable partnership of Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra continues for many years to come.

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday. gpmf.org

Posted in Performances

One Response to “A rousing “Carmina Burana” closes Grant Park Music Festival in style”

  1. Posted Aug 24, 2018 at 9:03 am by Suzanne Duffy

    We so throughly enjoyed the concert, very well done!! And coupled with the setting, a perfect summer evening.

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