The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robi Polgar, October 11, 2002, Arts

Carmina Burana/Hymn to the Earth: A Real Sharing of Breath

Riverbend Centre,

October 4

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy laments loss, boy meets another girl. Or in today's sophisticated world: Disaffected youth meets disaffected youth, they torture each other with their uncommunicated longings; they have really good sex; they split up in mutual misery; they lament their fates; they note that the changing seasons often bring involuntary mood swings of exuberant lust or grim misanthropy. And, naturally, the laments, joys, and longings become fodder for song. It's what rock & roll has been doing for decades.

Of course, popular music has been illuminating the rituals of love since cavepeople gathered around the fire to commiserate or exuberate, and so it was for the wandering students and unconventional monks of 13th-century Germany, whose collected poems -- bawdy, ironic, pained, and joyous -- wound up on composer Carl Orff's desk. In 1937, his Carmina Burana premiered in Frankfurt and is now one of the best-known choral works in the classical repertoire. It has found its way into movie scores and car stereos and, often, into crowded concert halls where audiences practically sing along with the familiar themes. So far as Conspirare's conductor Craig Hella Johnson can figure, till now there has never been a formal sing-along of the Carmina Burana, and on Friday night he led a gregarious and eager mob -- sophisticated but certainly not disaffected -- in several passages of this absorbing, dramatic work. The experiment in audience participation showed Johnson at his charming best, warm and engaging with the large, receptive audience and comfortably in control of his singers; the mutual admiration of chorus and conductor makes Conspirare concerts especially joyful, a real sharing of breath, as Johnson might say.

Before the start of Carmina Burana, the audience was offered a chance to share breath with the Conspirares, undertaking a brief rehearsal of O Fortuna, the weighty, sibilant, and dark confirmation that we are all Fortune's fools. Two more pieces, Were diu werlt alle min and the boisterous Tempus est iocundum, were learned before Conspirare and the rather accomplished audience/chorus plunged into the massive work. While themes of love dominate the piece, perhaps the most memorable piece on Friday was guest tenor Robert Breault's dramatic, and humorous Olim lacus colueram, a lament sung from the perspective of a swan roasting on a fire for the culinary pleasure of the tavern's denizens. Baritone Joseph Wigget and soprano Jennie Olson -- whose voice is wondrously delicate and evocative -- offered their own superb solos to highlight the lovelorn and lustful content.

The evening opened with the world premiere of Hymn to the Earth, by local composer Donald Grantham, who was commissioned by Conspirare to turn Homer's poem into song. For a work with so supplicating a lyric, Grantham's Hymn often sounded dark, at times even threatening, with flashes of humor and an occasional folk music highlight. The final passage, sung by soloist Stefanie Moore, turned the forceful choral work into something soothing and lovely, with Grantham achieving a striking contrast between the fearful and the serene in his work.

Riverbend Centre, with its arching stone designs and semi-circular auditorium, offered a dramatic setting for two dramatic works (the irony of so sexually charged, drink-laden, and un-Biblical material finding itself presented on the Baptist dais added layers to Carmina Burana's ribald energy). But on more than one occasion, the vaulting sounds of the orchestra and chorus turned shrill, slamming off the stone edifices and jarring the ear. And the need to reinforce voices with microphones was disappointing insofar as the audio mix couldn't be engineered to produce a more natural sound in a space affecting a natural appearance. But few venues, no matter how grand, would have been a match for the honesty of the elemental feelings of so magnificent a work, given such expressive and enjoyable treatment by so fine a chorus under such a gifted conductor.

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