Conductor Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra inaugurated Carnegie Hall’s 2012-13 season last Wednesday night with a brilliant rendition of Carmina Burana, Carl Orff’s beloved choral masterwork. The usual pressures of opening night had bubbled over two weeks earlier, when CSO musicians, in a hardball collective-bargaining tactic, walked out on strike hours before a concert in Chicago. Maestro Muti had declared himself “very, very disappointed” at the walkout, clearly designed to exploit the coming Carnegie engagement, and Carnegie management went into crisis mode. “You don’t cancel opening night,” Clive Gillinson, the hall’s executive and artistic director, grimly told the New York Times.

The refusal of the country’s best-paid orchestral musicians to accept slightly higher health-care contributions in exchange for a salary increase looked unrealistic at the very least, at a time when less well-paid orchestras are being asked to accept significant salary cuts. Nevertheless, the union and management reached an agreement favorable to the musicians two days later, and the Carnegie engagement was back on track. All seemed forgiven by Wednesday night. Muti waded into the orchestra after the performance to elicit solo bows from individual wind and brass players, to tumultuous applause. And the Apollonian precision with which the ensemble executed Orff’s Dionysian score spoke to a deep musical understanding between conductor and players.

Should orchestra members ever take their noses out of their union contracts long enough to consider the future of their profession, they would clamor to offer Carmina Burana for free to local school students (and their pop-addled parents) every time they perform the work in their regular concert schedule. Forget Benjamin Britten’s insipid Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; if you want to make the most viscerally powerful case for live orchestral music, Carmina Burana, completed in 1936, is it. Orff shamelessly exploits as many thrilling sonic devices as he can cram into the piece, from irrepressible climaxes and lightning-fast alternations of mood to sheer, glorious loudness. Though Carmina Burana is scored for three vocal soloists and the usual complement of strings and winds, the massive percussion section and the multiple choruses own the work, blasting out exotic Oriental effects and exuberant cascades of syncopation. (That percussion section encompasses timpani, three glockenspiels, xylophone, castanets, ratchet, small bells, triangle, antique cymbals, crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, tubular bells, tambourine, snare drum, bass drum, celesta, and two pianos.)

Orff found the inspiration for Carmina Burana while browsing in a rare book store in Würzburg, Germany. For centuries, the monks of the Benediktbeuern monastery in Bavaria had preserved a collection of several hundred poems from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries written in Medieval Latin, Middle High German, and Old French (sometimes combined in the same poem). The manuscripts came to light in 1803 and were published in 1847, under the title Carmina Burana (Songs of Bavaria). When Orff opened that 1847 edition in Würzburg in 1934, he discovered strikingly erotic love poems, rowdy drinking ballads, paeans to Spring, and laments on the fickleness of fate. Immediately enthralled, he set 24 of those poems in a work intended for the operatic stage, with choreography and “magic images,” as the cantata’s Latin title indicates. Carmina Burana was indeed presented as a theatrical pageant in Germany in its first decades; today it is encountered almost exclusively in the concert hall. A contemporary audience might find its original theatrical trappings slightly kitsch; once music breaks free of any visual component and enters the realm of abstraction, it’s hard to go back again (though Jean-Pierre Ponnelle did go back again in his remarkable 1975 dramatization of the work—either illuminating or amusing, depending on your taste).

Though Orff respected Schoenberg’s Expressionist experiments, Carmina Burana shunned the atonal revolution then well underway in Germany. He borrowed heavily from Stravinsky’s Les Noces, including its irregular meters, percussion fusillades, and the repetition of musical pattern in lieu of thematic development. He sweetened that work’s stringent dissonances, however, and added snatches of captivating melody.

No sooner had he ascended the podium on Wednesday night than Muti unleashed a satisfying blast of sound from the orchestra and chorus, followed by an insistent, foreboding pulse. That pulse propelled the work forward; Muti resisted the temptation to exaggerate the most dramatic ritards, such as the build-up to the concluding “O Fortuna” chorus. Instrumental and vocal attacks were clean and sharp (not always the case, surprisingly, with Simon Rattle and Seiji Ozawa’s recorded versions), and the rapid dynamic shifts from fortissimo to pianissimo were startling in their span. But while giving full rein to the work’s headlong force, Muti also introduced precise details of phrasing. In the final explosive moments of “O Fortuna,” the musical line hung briefly suspended at the top of its arc before swinging back toward Earth. The Chicago Children’s Chorus, transparently enunciating every word, pulled back against the soprano in “Amor volat undique” (Love flies everywhere) in a subtle cross-rhythm.

Judging from their biographies in the program, all three vocal soloists were making their U.S. debuts. Soprano Rosa Feola and countertenor Antonio Giovannini had sung under Muti before in his admirable resuscitations of forgotten Neapolitan operas. Feola did not quite carry over the flutes in the punishingly long final syllable of “custodia” in “Amor volat undique,” but her voice grew in power thereafter, combining a rich mezzo quality in the low register and a clear sweetness on top. The countertenor has just one aria—the strident lament of a swan being roasted on a tavern spit—but Giovannini milked it for all it was worth. He remained seated while the orchestra began the number, then bolted upright at a cymbal clap and grabbed the sides of his music stand with affronted pride. His self-righteous trills only contributed to the amusingly camp nature of his performance. Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen brought a disturbing erotic intensity to “Dies, nox et omnia” (Day, night, and all the world), dropping from a falsetto to the darkest, most virile depths of his voice at the line “plu me fay temer” (it makes me more afraid).

Muti is arguably the country’s preeminent choral conductor, and New York audiences were lucky to have had this Carmina. But Chicago audiences were even luckier last March when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus gave a concert of less familiar—and thus even more invaluably performed—choral works. Brahms’s haunting Schicksalslied (Song of Fate, 1871) was the high point of the carefully constructed program, which also included Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre (1938) and Luigi Cherubini’s Requiem in C Minor (1816). Muti created an almost unbearable tension in the Brahms’s hushed, mysterious opening moments; throughout the work, every vocal and instrumental line was articulated with crystalline clarity. Muti has long championed Cherubini (1760-1842), an influential opera composer and the director of the Paris Conservatory of Music from 1822 to 1842. Though he is most remembered today for Berlioz’s corrosive mockery in the Memoires, Cherubini was esteemed by Brahms and Mendelssohn. Beethoven thought more highly of his Requiem than Mozart’s. Even if one doesn’t fully share Muti’s enthusiasm for this now-eclipsed musician, the opportunity to hear a seminal work by this important link in the transition from Classicism to Romanticism was worth several dozen more performances of Messiah or the Ninth Symphony.

Carnegie’s opening night gala dinner following the Carmina Burana concert probably had fewer patrons than usual, as audience members hurried home to catch the first presidential debate. No matter where the Carnegie concertgoers stood on the politics of that event, they ought to have been reassured to rediscover that America’s musical institutions, however recession-harried, continue to perform at such an unmatched level of accomplishment.


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