Review: MSO ends Masterworks with bang; Chen elevates orchestra's reputation around country

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra ended its Masterworks season this weekend by going big -- something it has done a lot this last year.

Saturday night's performance of "Carmina Burana" at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts (and another performance scheduled Sunday afternoon at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre) gave maestro Mei-Ann Chen a chance to crank it up with a crowd pleaser that put lots of talent on the stage.

The piece, written by Carl Orff in 1936, is an overwrought and overrated work of art, a gluttonous mash of medieval poetry stirred into a tacky cantata that careens from all-out heart-bursting massed choirs singing of fickle fate to ditties about how everyone likes to get drunk.

Therein also lies much of its popularity, a rock-and-roll mentality swathed in over-the-top orchestration (the Trans Siberian Orchestra finds it a perfect piece) and a perfect fit for all manner of pop culture moments. The very familiar "O Fortuna" has been the manipulating music in films from "Excalibur" to "Jackass: The Movie," and shown up in scads of commercials and sporting events.

That said, it's also quite clearly fun for the performers. This weekend's performances involved the orchestra, the Memphis Symphony Chorus, the Campus School Children's Chorus, three vocal soloists and a typically energetic Chen, who was having a ball commanding her armies of performers.

And the ensemble sounded terrific -- Chen is wrapping up her second season at the helm of the MSO and there is a pleasing maturity to its sound. Opening the evening with selections from "Barber of Seville" and from Rossini's popular overture to the closing strains of "Carmina Burana," you can tell the impact Chen has had as she nurtures the orchestra into doing better and better work.

The guest soloists, who performed in both the Rossini and the Orff works, were notable, particularly soprano Priti Gandhi, whose heavenly voice was impossibly beautiful, and tenor John McVeigh, who met and surpassed the challenges Orff handed him in his single number in "Carmina Burana." Baritone Philip Cutlip had issues navigating the upper register and was a bit underpowered.

Kudos to the two choruses -- adults and children can be counted on to show reliability and artistry in their performances.

And cheers to Chen, who has elevated the orchestra's reputation around the country. One of the consequences of the MSO doing well is that it's losing people who are going on to greater challenges: Former president and CEO Ryan Fleur recently took a job with the Philadelphia Orchestra, concertmaster Susanna Perry Gilmore did her last concert Sunday with the MSO as she takes on duties as concertmaster for the Omaha Symphony, and associate conductor Stilian Kirov will soon be on his way to the Seattle Symphony as assistant conductor. This is part of the normal churn in the world of orchestras; the hope is that the dynamic of the MSO will attract some of the best talent out there.