The North Carolina Symphony (NCS) has already begun its 2014 Summerfest of outdoor concerts at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary, but that doesn’t stop them from one more weekend of great classical concerts of the indoor kind. But, in what appears to be a programming first of its kind for the NCS, they are presenting Carl Orff’s spectacular Carmina Burana under the ceilings of Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill and Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh prior to the final performance under the stars at their outdoor summer home in Cary. Another unique feature of this trio of concerts is the chance to meet David Glover, recently appointed as the new Associate Conductor of the NCS starting in the 2014-15 season.

Carmina Burana, like Beethoven’s 9th and a few other major works, straddles the one-hour performance time so it can be a tough decision whether to program anything else with it. For these concerts there was no advertised mention of other works, so it was somewhat of a surprise to arrive and find that there was a first half appetizer to the main feast. The opener was a glorious and uplifting performance of Giovanni Gabrieli’s Canzoni septimi toni, No. 2. Featuring just the entire brass and horn sections, this was a regal and sonorous evocation of the glory of the early renaissance. While not quite the same as hearing it in an antiphonal setting in a cathedral as it was meant to be performed, it still stirred the emotions and showed off the remarkable musicianship of these sections.

It was once commonplace for conductors, including some of the biggest names of all time, to go entire careers without ever speaking a word to the audience. That, mostly for the better, has changed, and it is now practically a requirement for a conductor to be engaging, have a good speaking voice and create rapport with the audience. Glover, currently the Assistant Conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony, spoke briefly after the Gabrieli and demonstrated these traits while also shining some light on what may appear to be incongruous programming,

Like Carl Orff, Ottorino Respighi eschewed most of the cerebral, academic post-Romantic musical fads and often mined older music to be dressed up with his unique orchestration skills. Nothing demonstrates this more than his three sets of Ancient Airs and Dances, in which he uses pieces written for the lute as its basis. The NCS played the first set, which features works by Molinaro, Galilei, and Ignoto. These suites are usually played by a chamber orchestra or at least a somewhat reduced symphony orchestra, but the NCS had Mahlerian forces assembled for these intimate pieces. The electronic harpsichord boomed out way too loud and unnaturally, which exacerbated the situation. Glover had some issues starting the orchestra for each movement as it took a few measures for everyone to agree on a single tempo. Despite all that, the charming music overtook everything and the woodwinds, in particular, were exceptional.

Profanity, sex, drinking, gluttony, lust: it’s not just for or from the 20th century and the Internet. Based on medieval texts from the 11th to 13th centuries, Carl Orff assembled twenty-four of these poems and, beginning in 1935, composed Carmina Burana, a sprawling cantata whose popularity never seems to ebb. There are five major sections with each containing several connected parts, most with three verses. The performance featured the North Carolina Master Chorale, Alfred Sturgis, Music Director, and the Capital City Girls Choir, Fran M. Page, Director. The superb soloists were Heather Buck, soprano, Jason S. McKinney, baritone, and singing the famous “swan” aria, Barry Banks, tenor.

The opening “O Fortuna” chorus has now firmly become part of the popular culture and has been used in numerous movies and commercials, usually portraying something ominous and frightening. This powerful opening, followed by the ostinato of doom, seemed to just lie there with no momentum and the chorus sounding a bit tenuous and bored. The very deep UNC stage also put the chorus far from the audience, and the orchestra overpowered them at times to the point of seeing the singers moving their lips, but not hearing them. In an otherwise excellent debut on the NCS podium, Glover failed to balance the orchestral and choral forces for this particular venue.

Soloists McKinney and Buck were seated, from the start, directly in front of the conductor, despite the fact that there wasn’t a part for the soprano for nearly forty minutes. McKinney was masterful, both with his powerful baritone and falsetto as well as his evocative portrayals of the texts. When Buck finally got to sing, it was well worth the wait. For my money, she is as perfect a soprano voice as I have heard. In her final passage she enters from silence to sing an interval to a high C that should be studied by every vocalist. No swooping, swerving, or hesitancy; just a stunningly perfect arrival on a beautiful pure tone! Equally stunning was tenor Barry Banks, who walked from backstage, treated us to six minutes of tenor angst at an unbelievable vocal height, and then left.

With each section, the orchestra, chorus, and conductor gained confidence and seemed to be having more fun, which elicited more energy and controlled abandon. Carmina Burana is somewhat elemental, and its trademark is rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. In this sense it is not much different from Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps from 20 years earlier. One of the unsung heroes was tubist Tony Granados* who played one of the busiest orchestral parts for that instrument and really “drove the bus” (as jazz players like to say) for much of the score.

This is an exceptional opportunity to hear Orff’s masterpiece, which cannot be pigeonholed or characterized as one particular style but is universal and accessible to all. With this magnificent performance, the only question becomes, indoors or outdoors? Why not both?

Hear it May 30 in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall or May 31, al fresco, in Cary’s Regency Park – or, as suggested above, in both places. See the sidebar for details.

*2/1/14  Thanks for the correction.  Tony Granados substituted for David Lewis on tuba.