Concertgoers bound for the NC Symphony on a pleasant Friday evening were well-informed by a CVNC preview with many details about the program. It was worth a look to prepare for this review as well.

Conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto has had quite a successful career in several countries, especially Mexico. He has appeared with the NCS before, notably in 2015 conducting Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. Notable for commissioning and performing new music by Mexican and American composers, he commissioned the first work on this program. He brings the same kind of Latin enthusiasm and verve seen in his colleague Gustavo Dudamel, with whom he has conducted the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. He also reminds me of Giancarlo Guerrero in Nashville. With a clear beat and technical accuracy, he also has the kind of stage presence and connection with the audience that today’s conductors need to have.

All the music written by living composers in the 2018-2019 season (and again in the 2019-2020 season) is by women. This concert featured two new pieces, the first being Hominum: Concerto for Orchestra by Gabriela Ortiz (b.1964). She is one of Mexico’s most successful composers and now teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Indiana University.

Hominum (2016) is scored for large orchestra, including about 50 percussion instruments manned by five percussionists. With full winds (except only alto flute for flutes), four horns, four trumpets, three trombones, and tuba, two harps, piano, and celesta, the scoring is typical of music of the last few generations in being basically a band piece. In all four of the movements, only the soft, slow third movement had passages where the strings could be heard at all. Otherwise, they were completely drowned out by the other instruments and weren’t missed much as the writing is not particularly idiomatic for strings. As with most new music, there were no melodies, and the dissonance was constant and wearing. The emphasis was on coloristic effects and sound events. By the end, the audience had clearly had enough, and the applause was minimal.

The second work was Prince of Clouds by Anna Clyne (b.1980), for two violins and string orchestra. Clyne was born in London but has lived in the US for many years. Currently she teaches composition at Mannes/The New School.

Prince of Clouds was nominated for the 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The soloists were Karen Strittmatter Galvin and Jacqueline Saed Wolborsky, both of whom I’ve been following as a fan for years. Galvin is assistant concertmaster of the NCS and has long been a champion of new music; she is curator of New Music Raleigh and has served on the board of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild (now Chamber Music Raleigh). Wolborsky is principal second violin of the NCS and has extensive experience concertizing widely. This concerto treats the two instruments together basically as one composite instrument; frequently they played separated by only a second. In less capable hands, this would sound grating and obnoxious, but the tone quality of the soloists was warm and sweet, so it came off as the composer intended. The audience was delighted and responded with generous applause and a curtain call.

After intermission came the big draw of the evening; word was out for this warhorse, and there were few empty seats. Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (1895-1982), the one great composition to come from Nazi Germany, is one of the oddest of the staples of orchestral and choral literature. (Thankfully, Orff wasn’t a Nazi himself, saving much hand-wringing!)

Just think of all the don’t-go-there aspects for putting together a hit piece. The orchestra is very large, with everybody on the payroll on stage. Next, at least two choirs, adult and children’s, and the adult choir has to be big enough to subdivide. And then you have to find very good singers to be solo tenor, baritone, and soprano. And it’s long, taking a little over an hour in most renditions. The text is off the wall to say the least – eccentric ramblings from an obscure corner of Germany, a manuscript of 254 poems from the 11th and 12th centuries of bawdy, irreverent, satirical, and gloomy subject matter. The languages are mostly medieval Latin, with some in Middle High German, old Arpitan (whatever that is), and old French slang. Even if you decide how to pronounce the text, who will understand it? Orff took 23 of these poems to set in this work, and somehow got it performed soon after its composition. It was an immediate success.

Orff got everything right. In contrast to the complex textures and dissonances of the first two compositions, Carmina Burana is remarkably simple, to the point, strongly melodic, and extraordinarily effective. Orff is not afraid of repetition, getting into the groove, and installing catchy tunes in your head.

Conductor Prieto has a great feel for the music, and the North Carolina Master Chorale, prepared by Al Sturgis, was more than equal to the task. They were joined by the Capital City Girls Choir, based at Meredith College. Soloist Stephen Powell has the big voice required of the part and, as all the soloists, a capacity for extreme high notes. (He also did fake drunkenness like a pro when needed.) Tenor Vale Rideout did what at times really sounded like a countertenor’s part; I’m afraid if I wrote notes that high, I’d get slapped. He and Powell are no strangers to the piece, having performed it with other orchestras. Ying Fang was the soprano soloist, in a flaming red dress and lipstick; she will very likely have a great career in opera. Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera was in 2013, and she has done Carmina Burana with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Thankfully, the house lights were on enough for the audience to follow the lyrics, something I have not done before. This added quite a bit to appreciating the performance, which was some of the best playing I’ve heard the NCS produce in many years. The audience was suitably impressed, and the reaction was an enthusiastic and prolonged standing ovation, well deserved.

This program will be repeated in Wilmington on Sunday, May 5, and in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, May 7. See our sidebar for details.