conductor composer
two letter D inside a blue circle


The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Carl Orff’s Carmina burana


Linda Holt

Broad Street Review


Raunchy lyrics and choral shouts of primeval joy rang out through Verizon Hall this weekend, as the Philadelphia Orchestra and three feisty choral groups offered a no-holds-barred performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina burana. Conductor Fabio Luisi and a stage full of genius proved just the right mix for this eagerly anticipated production.

In case you’ve been living under a cultural rock for almost 100 years, you should know that the “naughty cantata” (as I like to call it) is one of the most crowd-pleasing works of 20th-century classical music. This is despite the fact that it was written in Germany just before World War II by a composer who, while not an official Nazi, definitely did benefit from their patronage.

It’s also a beloved staple of movies featuring satanic rituals and drug hallucinations (such as Jim Morrison biopic The Doors), a reputation the work does not actually deserve. The bold fortissimo opening is as likely to be heard in a high-school marching band or an Old Spice commercial. The work is also subject to many parodies, the opening “O Fortuna” finding humorous expression as “Four more tuna! Need more tuna!” and other hilarious variations (search for “Carmina burana misheard lyrics” on YouTube).

What better way to welcome in the vernal equinox than Orff’s setting of these mildly obscene love songs, drinking tunes, and other ephemera discovered in the margins of medieval religious texts found in a German monastery in 1803? But first, Mozart

Not everyone likes Carmina burana, and I can attest to being bored in past recordings and performances by the seemingly interminable middle section of this work. That didn’t happen in this production, thanks to Luisi’s unflagging energy. Invisible bolts of excitement seemed to flash out from his baton-less, expressive fingers, vivifying the alert, completely engaged orchestra, choral ensembles, and three soloists (lots of performers, lots of sound). He truly is a first-rate conductor in every way, as became immediately evident in the first chords of the utterly dissimilar Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503, which opened the program.

This was Mozart through the lens of a large, modern orchestra, European in texture, with dreamy woodwind selections and an enchanting horn duet in octaves by Chelsea McFarland playing the higher octave and Christopher Dwyer the lower octave. The star of this production, of course, was Emanuel Ax, a familiar face to orchestra subscribers. He did not disappoint, playing a new ergonomically designed piano with a curved keyboard which, to my ear, still permitted the artist to capture and convey the mature Mozart. Ax played synergistically with the many instrumentalists of the orchestra, themes weaving in and out or being tossed from musician to musician with affectionate care. Beauty and blasphemy

Carmina burana was the second and longer work on the program, a staggering 25 sections in length. I appreciated the digital titles displayed above the stage, since a key to enjoying this work is understanding the text. Despite its notoriety for sexual innuendo and a cheeky touch of blasphemy, the work begins and ends on a somber note, conceding that Fate rules all, and happy moments are destined to bend at Fortune’s bidding: “(Fate,) I bare my back to your villainy…Fate is against me, in health and virtue…always enslaved…everyone, weep with me.”

Bringing optimum expression to their declamation of the text, the three soloists were outstanding choices. Clad in a slinky sheath of red and indigo, soprano Audrey Luna was sirenic as she sang “A girl stood in a red tunic” with clearly modulated tones and an almost liquid effusion of sound. Her high D seemed effortless, and her presence dignified and slightly dangerous.

Tenor Sunnyboy Dladla brought a spellbinding originality to his falsetto aria as a dying swan. I’ve never heard this disturbing solo sung with such conviction and poignancy. Truly, a great talent. Baritone Sean Michael Plumb informed his character with piercing authenticity in the “Burning Inside” aria and a strong dramatic instinct as an eager suitor in the duet with Luna, “This is the joyful time”. Excellent work all around by members of the Mendelssohn Chorus of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale, and Philadelphia Girls Choir. Whatever your view of Orff’s cantata, this performance was as vivid and fresh as the springtide it toasts.

dominick smiling and looking out