Gluttony, Gambling and Lust

Not to mention drunkenness. Symphony and MSO Chorus close season with crash-boom-bang of Carmina Burana.

By - Jun 22nd, 2015 02:34 pm
Andreas Delfs. Photo by Erol Reyal.

Andreas Delfs. Photo by Erol Reyal.

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus joined forces to end their 2014–2015 season with Carl Orff’s pagan paean, Carmina burana. Slaking desires of gluttony, gambling and lust while having a bit too much to drink and contemplating one’s resignation to fate are the themes of this raucous, bawdy enterprise, delivered under the familiar kinetic energy of Andreas Delfs. Delfs, former MSO music director, has a positive history with this work, having conducted it here several times. His familiarity with the score conveyed a well-ingrained but electric dynamism.

Even if you’ve never been to the symphony in your life, you would recognize Orff’s music as a classical music meme. The first bars of “O Fortuna” may come to mind when you forget your wedding anniversary or don’t call your dad on Father’s Day; or perhaps you use the theme as the ringtone for your boss. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard this music somewhere—and by heard it, I mean felt it. This piece is a blaring, visceral, crash-bang-boom sensory overload.

The absolute stars of the show were Lee Erickson’s well-trained choristers: the MSO Chorus sang with tremendous rhythm, color, sensuality, and sound. The sopranos were exceptionally clear, bright, and accurate, and the altos were powerful and supportive with rich tone and flawless intonation. The men provided both strength and foundation to the massive sound this choir produces, all while spitting out mouthfuls of well-enunciated, energetic words. The choral part is full of syrupy, flirtatious glissandos, exuberant shouts, tender cooing, and, for a bit of visual excitement, rhythmic fluttering of the vocal scores that emphasized the text. This chorus is so fine that I don’t consider it at all hyperbolic to say that famed ensembles like the Mormon Tabernacle or Robert Shaw chorales couldn’t serve Milwaukee’s chorus its lunch.

Along with the chorus, the brass and percussion (including two pianos and celeste) gave Orff’s work muscular backbone. Dean Borghesani and Thomas Wetzel played on the two sets of timpani with athleticism, and Robert Klieger beat the bass drum like a rented mule. The brilliantly burnished forces in the brass added excitement to the chorus, and although this clarion cadre played very well, one could imagine the brass parts weren’t as physically satisfying to play as those of the percussionists. Pianists Wilanna Kalkhof and Stefanie Jacob were superb as they augmented the wind section with percussive exactitude, and the strange duet between flutist Sonora Slocum and Borghesani danced delightfully like a peg-legged ballerina well into her fifth beer.

Baritone Corey McKern sang with lusty power and an appropriately comical falsetto. I could have stood for a bit more blatant drunkenness when he was defining his inebriation, but McKern has a terrific voice. Although well introduced by the characterful playing of guest bassoonist Anthony Georgeson, tenor Michael Maniaci was much less convincing as he sang from the vantage point of the roasted swan. Sung entirely in an undernourished falsetto, he never produced much sound and offered more comic shtick than vocal prowess. Soprano Caitlin Lynch had a very beautiful voice—clear and colorful. Yet, while Lynch’s singing was virtuosic and every bit correct, she underplayed the drama; by the time we got to her aria of sexual surrender, Orff’s writing screamed for a potent abandon to climax, and the audience should all have felt their heads snap back in tantric sympathy.

The Orff closes the way it opens with the fickle finger of fate—“O Fortuna”scaring the liver out of us with life’s unpredictability.

Bravo to Marco Melendez and the excellent Milwaukee Children’s Choir. Their sweet, youthful voices blended charmingly as they sang with rhythmic precision and spot-on intonation.

The concert opened with the Concerto No. 1 in G minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 26, by Max Bruch. MSO concertmaster Frank Almond played with his usual level of polish, virility, and style. Most impressive was his Adagio second movement which demonstrated Almond’s lyrical side. His capacity for tender phrases is admirable, and his musical direction is well thought out. Delfs was mostly able to keep the voices of the orchestra beneath Almond’s solo sound, and together they were sympathetic partners in tempo and architecture.

Delfs has always been a conductor much more focused on energy than accuracy. One could criticize that his hands telegraph musical intent far more than precise entrances, cut-offs, or pace, but one can register no qualms about excitement. In both the Orff and the Bruch, Delfs brought exuberance and flair to the podium, and the concert was thrilling for it.

Fans of Delfs should take note that his enthusiastic approach to music will soon enrich the orchestra program at the Boyer College of Music at Temple University in Philadelphia. Delfs will begin his new post as a professor of instrumental music—part of a distinguished faculty composed largely of members from the Philadelphia Orchestra—where he will be artistic director and conductor of the Temple University Symphony Orchestra. He will also teach conducting and coach chamber music.

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