Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Songs From Bavaria

It was by happy accident that I ended up with tickets to see the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra perform Carmina Burana on Saturday night, having exchanged them for tickets I couldn’t use in early May due to a conflicting obligation. I can sum up the entire evening by saying that this performance by the BSO, accompanied by Morgan State University’s Choir, the Peabody Children’s Chorus, and American soloists baritone Brian Mulligan, tenor John Tessier and soprano Robin Johannsen, was hands down one of the best performances I have heard by any orchestra anywhere in the country. Ever.

I sought out something comfortable to wear to the Meyerhoff symphony hall in downtown Baltimore for the occasion, but something that reflected German composer Carl Orff’s powerful music: bold and colorful, a dramatic celebration of spring bursting forth in all its glory. To that end I pulled on a pair of striped Sufi pants by medieval fashion house Moresca, which I found at a Renaissance Festival eons ago. I added a sequined tank top by Material Girl from Macy’s Juniors department, a hand-dyed silk shawl by Susan D. Luks (sdluks.com) which I bought from the designer herself at February’s American Craft Council show in Baltimore earlier this year, and my boldest piece of jewelry: a statement necklace of chubby blister pearls and fiery branch coral, which I bought from jewelry designer Lisa Davin at Baltimore’s annual Artscape street fair last summer.

Draped in all that vibrant orange, I sashayed right down to the front of the concert hall and took my seat only ten rows from the stage. The place was packed, and for good reason. When Orff discovered Johann Schmeller’s 1847 edition of Bavarian poems in 1935, he was inspired to abandon the complex tonality of early 20th century music and create a work that, as stated in the evening’s program notes, "bypasses the brain and goes straight to the emotions".   More like straight to the gut. The poems in Schmeller’s book were originally found in a Benedictine monastery in the Bavarian alps near Munich, created by university students and clergy who wandered France, England and Germany in the early 11th, 12th and 13th centuries as raucous members of what became a bawdy countercultural movement celebrating sex, alcohol and frivolity in defiance of the era’s strict religious conforms.

These original hippies wandered the countryside entertaining town folk with their spoofs of church texts and obscene verses, rendered mostly in Latin.  In 1937 Orff set 24 of those poems to music, forsaking the intricate harmonies of the day for heavily accented rhythms and raw intensity. The opening and closing chorus of "O Fortuna" has been depicted in no less than 23 movies, plays and television episodes since 1978, and is currently applied in Jay Leno/Conan O’Brian’s late show as Dick Cheney’s "theme song" whenever the politician is a subject of discussion.

One of my most favorite scores ever, music director Marin Alsop’s commanding performance of Carmina Burana penetrated into my very soul on Saturday evening. A standing ovation that would not be quelled paid testament to the fact that I was not the only one smitten by the superb quality of the symphony’s, and the singers’, rigorous and enthusiastic execution. A quiet dinner at Baltimore’s Brewer’s Art restaurant after the concert was anticlimactic, the music a persistent "earworm" in my head which continues to this day.

"Now melts and disappears the ice, snow and the rest, winter flees and now spring sucks at summer's breast; a wretched soul is he who does not live or lust under summer's rule" -- from Camina Burana

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