New York Philharmonic
Avery Fisher Hall, June 01, 2012
So, I have decided this about massive, major orchestras: I really only want to see them when they are playing something LOUD. Otherwise, what is the point of eight double bases and four (four!) bassoons? Orff’s Carmina Burana fits the bill - it is many things, but mostly it is loud.
The Philharmonic started the program with Falla’s Atlantis, an incomplete non-opera about Colombus discovering Atlantis via a handful of Greek myths. It starts out desperately uninterestingly with a wall of sound from slightly dissonant, droning, surging violins and a jacked up to 11 chorus. In continued in this way, with little texture or interest to the noise for maybe two thirds, until the soprano’s bit. She started off much the same way, actually - with a big, uninteresting sound - and struggled a little with the volume and, perhaps, boringness. But then something changed. One passage, and then another and another were surprisingly lovely, and well the soprano’s her vocal grasp. By the ending, it was almost a different piece - the orchestra took a break and the soprano complete her lengthy section unaccompanied in soft, hushed, warm tones before the chorus picked it up to finish. It was a seriously great ending and so much more interesting and effecting than the big, loud, boring beginning.
Then the headliner. The Carmina Burana is a blockbuster. Not a Michael Bay blockbuster, but a good one. Maybe Die Hard? Something awesome and classic, but still massively over the top. There are definitely explosions in this music - big loud sections like the opening O Fortuna* - but there’s also sly little comedy moments, a rollicking story, tightly choreographed action sequences and a sex scene. There are even zinger lines.
It’s a work full of seemingly contradictory pieces - sections are in a bunch of different languages and have very different tones; the chorus sings pretty much the entire first half and then the soloists take over for the second; the narrative is all over the place (one minute we’re in a tavern full of drunkards, the next we’re hanging out in a forest with some lovers). It feels less like a cohesive song cycle and more like an album of pop songs. It shouldn’t work - it is too patchy - but like any good blockbuster, it forces you to suspend disbelief.
The first half was wonderful because the chorus were great - snapping out that famous staccato, really soaring when the score allowed for it, and harmonising so naturally. The soprano looked supremely bored for the first two thirds, but when she got up to sing in the third, she was really lovely. Her crystalline voice was firm and yielding both at once - full and warm but also sharp and precise. She was a knock out. The baritone was also quite good - I barely noticed him in the Atlantis piece, but here he relished his characters with a lively compassion and marvellously rich tone. The tenor was not very good, trading musicality for jokiness, but he only had one short bit, so that wasn’t too disastrous.
Orff’s music is great and the structure of the songs in this cycle really interesting - they’re almost like pop songs. They all go verse, chorus, verse, and so on, and sometimes go to the bridge. It’s unexpected for classical music and would be boring, but these are really, really good pop songs.