The Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (to give its full title Carmina Burana – cantiones profanae, cantoribus et choris cantandae, comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis) is one of those very rare works that break through to a mass audience, a fact made evident both by the very large house the work attracted to Meymandi Concert Hall of the Progress Energy Center in Raleigh and the long and enthusiastic ovation that its performance generated. One might well expect it to be otherwise, given that the texts are chosen from medieval poems in languages that no one speaks (and few learn): Latin, Middle High German (and Low German), a little Old French. And yet this is clearly one of the masterworks of the previous century, something made even stranger by the fact that no other pieces by the composer have entered the repertoire. The piece was written in 1935-6 and premiered in June 1937, well after the advent of the Nazi government although before the events of 1938 and the beginning of WWII in September 1939. This being the case, it is at the very least odd, and probably questionable, for the program notes provided by the North Carolina Symphony not to have even mentioned this context, which arguably should have been explored in some detail, given that this work is likely to be the only work produced in such circumstances that has entered or will enter the repertoire.

Why is the work so popular? Orff chose well in selecting his 24 poems from the 250 or so contained in the manuscript retained at the Benediktbeurn monastery in Bavaria (now in the Bavarian State Library), and created a compelling dramatic shape for a primarily choral piece lasting about an hour, moving from winter to the pleasures of spring and summer, the joys of drink, and finally a virtually pagan celebration of love and sex, culminating in a hymn which by all accounts should be to the Virgin Queen of the World (Mary), but which instead invokes Generous Venus! The final trajectory towards climax is masterfully constructed, beginning with the sounds of a children’s choir (more appropriately sung by boys, rather than the girls heard in Raleigh), moving through solos for baritone (verses in Latin, but each stanza ending with a line of French, the language of love) and soprano, and finally the orgasmic cry of the soprano (dulcissime! sweetest one) which brings in the hymn.

The singing of the North Carolina Master Chorale was excellent, and the group had been extremely well-prepared, with crystal clear diction (in their case, Italian pronunciation of the Latin). Unfortunately, the coordination of the chorus with the orchestra was not always what might have been wished, as frequently the two ensembles were out of sync with each other (though in sync within the respective groups). The culprit? Not enough rehearsal time for chorus and orchestra together, most likely. The lion’s share of the solo singing went to baritone Jason McKinney, an imposingly tall figure, and who did very well with an extremely demanding part (how many composers require baritones to sing a strophic song in which most of the music is in falsetto and yet each stanza concludes with notes in the basso range?) McKinney (properly) used German pronunciation for his part, something that should have been done by the chorus, and which would have made a notable musical difference. Also brilliant in his brief solo turn as a roast swan was tenor Barry Banks. The soprano soloist was Heather Buck (about whom more in my discussion of the Poulenc Gloria).

The concert opened with the relatively brief and extremely popular Gloria by French composer Francis Poulenc from barely two decades after the Carmina (it was composed in 1959). It would be hard to think of a piece more remote in style from the Orff, and one wonders why it was chosen to complement the latter. Given the recent vote regarding the amendment of the North Carolina constitution on marriage, it once more seemed like dereliction of duty for the program notes not to mention Poulenc’s sexuality, as he was openly gay and one of the earliest composers for which this was the case. And further, I think most listeners will find influences of this in his work (as is certainly true for the slightly younger Benjamin Britten). Poulenc seems to go out of his way to rethink the expressive possibilities of the Gloria text, particularly in the case of the verses regarding God the Father, which usually produce images of majesty and power. Not here, where the affect is melancholy, almost tragic. Also peculiar is the composer’s structuring of the final text, where the Amen appears before the invocation is concluded. Why? Your guess. Once more, the chorus sang with an Italian pronunciation (French would have been appropriate, yes?) Soprano Heather Buck did not make a good impression upon her entry on a high note here. I would hope that she was simply having an off-night, but what I heard was a rather thinnish tone, not very voluptuous, and too much vibrato spread over not enough sound. She was not up to the work that she had to accomplish, sad to say.