Rough edges detract from a thrilling “Carmina Burana” from Mitchell, DSO

Fri Oct 05, 2018 at 12:53 pm
By Wayne Lee Gay

Brett Mitchell conducted the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in music of Orff, Elgar and Theofanidis Thursday night. Photo: Jeff Nelson

With the appeal of a good pop song, Orff’s Carmina Burana is an almost sure-fire crowd-pleaser in any competent performance. 

True to form, the earthy 1936 cantata, with its throbbing primal rhythms and hummable tunes drew a nearly full house and uproarious applause Thursday night performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at Meyerson Symphony Center under guest conductor Brett Mitchell.

To his credit, composer Orff (working under the shadow of Naziism and its heavy-handed artistic populism) created a work that easily raises goosebumps. Unfortunately, Thursday night’s performance, while inducing a good thrill level (thanks to Orff’s neatly built-in climaxes and almost erotic apotheosis), was far from perfect. There was a catalog of little distractions of the sort that keep a decent performance from rising to the level of musical excellence that even an easy hit such as Carmina Burana deserves.

The chorus is the center of any performance of Carmina Burana, and the two hundred voices of the Dallas Symphony Chorus, trained by Joshua Habermann, as always poured through Meyerson Symphony Center with the power of a tidal wave; this is surely one of the finest rooms in the world for choral-orchestral music, and this ensemble has developed a remarkable beauty of tone to fill that space. 

But, while the choral tone was in full force, the chorus’s usual precision of attack was often slightly off throughout the performance, with some irritatingly ragged entries and cutoffs. 

Orff here gives the vocal soloists some of the most difficult and demanding (and, if well-executed, rewarding) passages in the entire oratorio repertoire. All three of the evening’s soloists brought the dramatic presence and quick, intense character development Carmina Burana demands, but all three had occasional problems  focusing tine and landing on the exact pitch. 

In spite of little glitches along the way, soprano Cyndia Sieden was neatly on target at the work’s climactic moment in the sexy arioso “Dulicissimo”; baritone Stephen Powell brought a beautiful tone and fine character projection to the most substantial of the vocal roles, but faltered in the upper range, with a weak head voice in the portion that climbs far above the usual baritone range. 

Tenor Nicholas Phan pulled off his one aria—that excruciating song of the roasting swan—with panache but with some understandable difficulty in tackling Orff’s almost painful demands. Indeed, among the vocalists, the entourage from Cynthia Nott’s Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas, ranged in the narrow balcony above the choral terrace, provided the one flawless element.

In terms of pacing, conductor Mitchell, who is currently music director of the Colorado Symphony, allowed Orff’s built-in impetus to work its usual magic, though even in the usually sharp orchestra, occasional ragged entrances and cut-offs undermined the overall effect.

The concert opened with Dallas-born American composer Christopher Theofanidis’s Rainbow Body of 2000, a gorgeously colorful and neatly paced rhapsody inspired by Buddhist philosophy and built around medieval poet Hildegard von Bingent’s chant “Ave Maria, O Auctix Vite.” A strangely unidentified soloist delivered the chant beautifully from offstage before the performance of Rainbow Body for a fine opening touch, after which Mitchell and the orchestra soared through Theofanidis’s easily digested romantic chromaticism and brilliant orchestral colors.

After Rainbow Body, conductor Mitchell made a few comments with game-show-host salesmanship, aptly pointing out an unexpected but intriguing triangular relationship of Rainbow Body, Carmina Burana, and the one other item on the program, Elgar’s jaunty Cockaigne Overture. In this expansive tone poem, Elgar applies his characteristic combination of melodic gift and Wagnerian chromaticism to capture the everyday humanity and energy of urban life in late Victorian London. But here, once again, the precision that could have pulled this performance from the level of pleasant to memorable was missing. 

The program will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Meyerson Symphony Center.; 214-692-0203.

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