Review: ISO's 'Carmina Burana' 

click to enlarge Krzysztof Urbański directs Carmina Burana with the ISO.
  • Krzysztof Urbański directs Carmina Burana with the ISO.

4 stars

ISO Symphonic Hits Program No. 2; Hilbert Circle Theatre; Sept. 23-24.

Carmina Burana (1936) is surely enough an aural display vehicle. But it is also a visual display: its stage virtually packed to the brim with performers, a huge Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with two pianos and a large percussion battery, the full Indianapolis Symphonic Choir under Eric Stark, plus the Indianapolis Children's Choir under Henry Leck, plus three vocal soloists—all conducted by ISO music director Krzysztof Urbański. It is perhaps the only large-scale 20th-century work which is almost guaranteed to pack 'em in, and Saturday evening was no exception, with only a few scattered empty seats remaining. What does this one-hour plus cantata offer that beguiles so many people?

Hummable tunes encased in conventional post-Romantic harmony for one thing. Plus listeners are whipsawed by its rhythmic drive; it's a lodestone attracting them like a magnet, its many soft starts gradually evolving into frenzied, accelerated conclusions. This formulaic approach reappears time after time — no more famously so than in its opening and closing "O Fortuna," bookending the three parts with a total of 25 separate pieces.

Carl Orff (1895-1982), an insignificant composer apart from this one work, set Burana to texts by 10th through 13th-century vagabonds, defrocked priests, hobo poets, and other literate ne'er-do-wells roaming Europe at the time. All these writings were earthy, cynical and irreverent, some of them bawdy — but not by today's standards.

It is my view that Orff, a German, succeeded in popularizing a musical formula with the example set by Stravinsky, a Russian, in his 1923 Les Noces (The Wedding), a vocal piece scored too large (four pianos!) for a chamber group and too small for an orchestra, and thus virtually never performed locally. Though the Stravinsky has the better music, it was Orff who struck gold, big time, with his Burana. Ironically Orff's succeeding cantata, Catulli Carmina, is scored quite similarly to Les Noces; it, too, is buried in the performing mists.

So, given all the above, how was Urbański's reading? It was great! This 28-year-old threaded all his behemothic forces through this rhythmic, vocal challenge as though he'd been doing it for years. The orchestra wove its way through its pulsating rhythms and its accelerandos with the sure-footedness of a rock-climbing mountain goat.

The three soloists, baritone Hugh Russell, soprano Erin Morley and tenor Christopher Pfund delivered good singing, with Russell acting a bit smashed in Part II, "In the Tavern." Morley and Pfund showed exceptional voices, with Pfund appearing onstage only for his meager two verses — the other two seated beside Urbański throughout when not singing. Morley sang her coloratura registers with ease, once reaching a high E-flat (if my pitch sense didn't fail me).

Both sets of choruses handled the rhythms with good precision, with the Children's Choir no less remarkable than it has ever been. The diction was impossible to hear with those huge forces in that large acoustic, but that is always of little consequence: We had our texts to follow.

Urbański began his program with two, short, rather inconsequential, near-contemporary Polish pieces for string orchestra and rife with minimalism: Henryk G--recki's (1933-2010) "Three Pieces in Old Style" and Otawa by Wojciech Kilar (b. 1932). It was clear that everyone was geared for what followed.

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