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When the Asheville Choral Society completed its performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on Sunday, the capacity audience in Asheville’s Central United Methodist Church erupted in applause for the 80-member chorus, the nine instrumentalists, and particularly for Music Director Lenora Thom. After a very successful ten years with this choir, she is retiring from the position. There will still be more Asheville Choral Society events this season, pops concerts on May 22 and 23, but this was Maestro Thom’s final appearance conducting the classical repertoire.
As she commented during a recent interview on public radio’s WCQS, she spent twenty years with a similar choir in New Jersey and ten with this one. She regrets not a minute of the thirty years, but it is time now to concentrate on her teaching, her voice and piano studio. Before relocating here, she was a successful vocal coach and accompanist, who prepared many opera and popular singers for New York City area auditions and performances.
Carmina Burana is by far Carl Orff’s best-known work. It is a highly successful setting to new music of 24 poems from the 11th through 13th centuries. While Medieval Latin is the dominant language, some of these poems were in a sort of Medieval Esperanto: a mélange of Middle High German, Provençal, Old French and Latin. Perhaps because of the mixed verbiage and perhaps because of the fast tempo of some numbers, the chorus at times lacked clear diction. I have heard them deliver better words on other occasions with more familiar languages. The chorus’s strong points in this performance were its power, its tonal quality and especially its ability to be dynamically percussive in those places that Orff indicates. They tackled the work with enthusiasm.
Maestro Thom had arranged Orff’s orchestral accompaniment for a small ensemble. She judiciously retained violin, flute and trumpet (one of each instrument: Jason Posnock, Dilshad Posnock and Amy Cherry) in order to present the tonal qualities of strings, woodwinds and brass. She retained timpani and three additional percussionists, very necessary for this work. Karen Boyd delivered the challenging piano passages and Vance Reese filled in some orchestral parts on the organ (for example using reed registration to deliver passages that in the original orchestration prominently feature the bassoon).
The most familiar number in Carmina Burana is “O Fortuna,” which opens and closes the suite. According to Wikipedia, “O Fortuna” is played before University of Connecticut home football games, Iowa Hawkeyes home football games, New England Patriots home games, Pittsburgh Pirates home games, and is the theme music for the Southampton Football Club and the West Bromwich Albion Football Club. It also was used in the movie Red October and is sung each year at the University of Oslo’s matriculation ceremony.
An explosive piece, “O Fortuna” describes how the Wheel of Fortune dictates our lives. Our lives, according to the rest of Carmina Burana, revolve around gambling, drinking, and the pursuit of love. These preoccupations are portrayed in 25 movements; nine of these get down to the nitty-gritty of a boy and a girl getting together, using some pretty explicit dialog.
Soprano Anne O’Byrne (based in Richmond, Virginia) and baritone Stephen Bryant (based in New Jersey) were pleasing in their solo passages, but the finest solo of the afternoon was delivered by tenor Tony Burdette (based in Cincinnati) in that part of the Tavern section entitled “Cignus ustus cantat" ("The Roast Swan"). Backed up by the male chorus, Burdette sang of the misery of his transition from being a beautiful swan on a lake to being a roast swan on a plate. Having this hilarious “swan song” at the final classical concert of Lenora Thom’s career with the Asheville Choral Society keeps me from getting too sentimental. Let me simply say that we will miss the innovation, adventure and skill that she has demonstrated in her time with the chorus.