'Carmina Burana' rousing start to May Festival

James Conlon

By Janelle Gelfand

The Cincinnati May Festival made a joyful noise to the words “O Fortuna,” the wheel-of-fortune” song that anchors Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” to open its 2012 festival on Friday.

Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium, which seats more than 3,400, was packed to the rafters for this audience favorite, and onstage were no fewer than 340 performers. Leading his 33rd season, music director James Conlon presided over the 140-voice May Festival Chorus, prepared by Robert Porco, the May Festival Youth Chorus (James Bagwell, director), the Cincinnati Boychoir (Christopher Eanes, director), three excellent soloists and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

The concert launched the festival’s first weekend on a theme of “sacred and profane.” Two selections from Verdi’s “Four Sacred Pieces” shared the program with Orff’s popular cantata “Carmina Burana.”

Orff’s ode to spring has been on the hit parade since it arrived in the United States in the 1950s. The tune, “O Fortuna” is still a pop hit heard on television commercials and even the Fox series, “Glee.” The music is tuneful and exuberant and its rhythms are earthy and hypnotic.

The work’s 24 verses also capture the imagination. Orff found his texts in a monastery in the Bavarian Alps. They are the songs (“carmina”) of anonymous student monks of the Middle Ages, who spent their time, obviously, drinking, dancing, making love and praising earthly pleasures.

Conlon led a performance of remarkable freshness and joy of the kind that could only make you smile. Besides the visual spectacle of 340 performers, it was impressive to hear the aural splendor of these choral forces in Music Hall’s magnificent space in “O Fortuna,” which opened and closed the work.

The richness and precision of the choral sound was impressive, especially given the numbers. The choristers sang vigorously and with clipped enunciation in the exultant “Ecce gratum,” a verse which welcomes spring. The pointed exchange between men and women in “Veni, veni, venias” was irresistible. The singers projected charm, too, in lighter moments, such as the women’s “Salesman, give me colored paint,” sung in old German. The Boychoir added light, well-trained voices to “The Court of Love.”

The performance benefited from three exceptional soloists. Baritone Stephen Powell’s contributions were both refined and humorous. He was a warm-toned storyteller in “Omnia Sol temperat” and his later “Dies, nox et omnia,” which were beautifully shaded. His entertaining characterization of the Abbot made the audience laugh out loud.

Heidi Grant Murphy sang radiantly, floating a pure voice high into the stratosphere in her solos. Her characterization of the girl in the red tunic was charming. And tenor Rodrick Dixon did not disappoint with his stylish rendition of the Roasted Swan, and he handled its impossibly high register impressively.

Without a score, Conlon propelled the forces for maximum dramatic effect, capturing both the sweetness of the softer moments as well as the blockbuster shows of power of all the combined forces. The orchestra played it all superbly and the musicians, too, smiled through this music. There were fine contributions from the winds, notably bassoonist William Winstead and flutists Randolph Bowman and Jasmine Choi. Timpanist Patrick Schleker put on a show in the final moments.

Conlon opened with the Stabat Mater and Te Deum from Verdi’s “Quattro Pezzi Sacri” (Four Sacred Pieces). The last music that Verdi wrote, it has stunning text painting and moments of considerable drama.

The plush choral sound of the May Festival Chorus in the Stabat Mater set a serene mood. The brass was resplendent in the Te Deum, and Conlon balanced its spiritual moments, which the chorus sang with great beauty. From the balcony, Murphy sang the plea to be spared from eternal darkness.

The festival, which goes back to 1873, welcomed spring once again with flowers, herald trumpets and maypole dancers in the lobbies. At the evening’s end, as the crowd demanded repeated curtain calls, a row of small children presented bouquets to the soloists.