Chicago Symphony Chorus takes flight in Orff’s “Carmina Burana”

Fri Mar 17, 2023 at 11:38 am

By Tim Sawyier

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and CSO Chorus performed Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana led by Osmo Vänskä Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana both returned to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday night after an absence of just over a decade.

Conductor laureate of the Minnesota Orchestra, Vänskä suffered a serious fall at the end of last year, shattering his pelvis and breaking a shoulder when he tumbled off a ladder onto a concrete floor, injuries that forced him to cancel what would have been his swansong Beethoven Ninth performances as music director of the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. It was heartening to see him back on the podium so soon after that harrowing experience, though he is clearly still recuperating, taking the stage in a gingerly fashion and conducting seated.

While Vänskä’s demeanor was understandably somewhat subdued, that  detracted little from a visceral performance of Carmina Burana, in which the incomparable CSO Chorus stole the show. They had been prepared by guest director Jenny Wong, associate director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Wong deserves enormous credit, as the singers were in thrilling form, from the shivering force of the opening “O Fortuna” to its recapitulation an hour later. They sang with clear diction, superb balance, and energy that made up for whatever Vänskä may have been lacking. The orchestra matched their vocal colleagues’ intensity and precision.

Osmo Vänskä conducted the CSO in music of Montgomery, Rautavaara and Orff Thursday night. Todd Rosenberg

Baritone Hugh Russell was an eleventh-hour replacement for an indisposed Elliot Madore, who was to have made his CSO debut. The baritone has the most heavy lifting of the three soloists, and Russell brought elegant vocalism to his solo flights, as well as thoughtful characterizations in line with the work’s origins as a theatrical production. 

While somewhat underpowered in “Omnia sol temperat,” which Vänskä might have helped with more assertive balancing, Russell sang himself into form. He made a convincing drunken abbot in “Ego sum abbas” and showed off a lovely falsetto in “Dies, nox et omnia,” bringing increasing force and personality as the work progressed.

Soprano Joélle Harvey brought more restrained eloquence to her solo role. She lent a clear, floating timbre to “Stetit puella,” and was luminous in both the “In trutina” and the stratospheric reaches of “Dulcissime.”

Countertenor Reginald Mobley made the most of his single aria, “Olim lacus colueram.” While he sang with supple refinement, the lyrics of the aria are the death wails of a swan being cooked on a spit. The necessary agonized quality comes across better with a tenor soloist struggling in his highest register, so while Mobley was more than capable, this effect was lost with the vocal line lying comfortably in his countertenor range.

The children’s choir was furnished by Uniting Voices Chicago, as the Chicago Children’s Choir rebranded itself in October last year to better reflect its commitment to diversity and outreach. Artistic director Josephine Lee’s protégés acquitted themselves admirably, enthusiastically performing from memory and adding the necessary youthful color to the two settings where they are featured.

The first half featured the downtown premieres of two works. The orchestra first performed Jessie Montgomery’s Banner at Ravinia two summers ago under Marin Alsop, but Thursday was the first subscription appearance of the Mead Composer-in-Residence’s fantasia on “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  

The work features a solo string quartet, that with one exception was the same Thursday as at Ravinia: violinists Stephanie Jeong and Baird Dodge, and cellist John Sharp reprised their parts, joined by guest principal viola Beth Guterman Chu of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, all performing with assertion and flair. As was also the case under Alsop, Montgomery’s work came off as engaging and inventive, written in what can increasingly be recognized as her singular, thoughtful idiom.

Vänskä also led the first CSO performances of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus arcticus, Op. 61 (Concerto for Birds and Orchestra). The Finn shaped his countryman’s sustained lines as they undulate under recorded birdsong, though at times it appeared the orchestra was not wholly responsive to his understated direction. While Rautavaara’s score is hypnotic and the orchestra built to a swirling climax, it was hard to avoid the impression that it got the short end of rehearsal time in an otherwise packed week.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday.

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