When illness obliged Wolfgang Gönnenwein to withdraw as guest conductor for the Madison Symphony Orchestra's season finale in Overture Hall, a capable and efficient substitute was found in young Emil de Cou.
I did have problems with the program he assumed. Well, not with the flashy little curtain-opener, the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev's "Love for Three Oranges," something the MSO can play in its sleep.
But, for his solo stint, the locally based piano virtuoso Christopher Taylor chose George Gershwin's "Concerto in F." Written in 1925, 12 years before his death, this concerto represents the most substantial "classical" form Gershwin attempted. He managed structural issues surprisingly well. But the content remains more appropriate to the popular dance hall and Broadway theater - where his true genius lay. I'm reminded of Chopin's two piano concertos, where material befitting his immortal piano miniatures is stretched awkwardly onto a too-large-scale armature.
No matter for Taylor, who played as if his life depended upon it, utterly dazzling the audience. Finally came that durable mastodon, Carl Orff's 1937 "scenic cantata" setting medieval Latin and early German poems from the 13th-century song-manuscript known as the Carmina Burana. Devoted lifelong to ancient Greek and Latin poetry, Orff achieved his greatest "hit" in this lone para-medieval venture.
Immediacy of appeal notwithstanding, I find it wears badly. The sketchy strophic tunes and the brutal rhythms may or may not reflect the Nazi esthetics of which Orff was officially vindicated, but they betray his blatant debt to Stravinsky. The mass of performing bodies onstage cannot alter the fact that the score is a landmark of proto-minimalism, with sparse choral and orchestral writing of childish simplicity. There's a key, for this work really makes sense when placed beside Orff's great legacy, his "Schulwerk," designed to cultivate musicality in youngsters through children's tunes and rhythms.
Why does Orff's "Carmina Burana" still wow audiences, as it did this past weekend? The power of raw energy, I suppose. Helping de Cou prove it were the Madison Symphony Chorus and the Madison Youth Choirs, plus three fine soloists. Tonna Miller's voice of virginal purity was ironically apt for her erotic evocations, while Joel Burcham deftly navigated his countertenorish turn as a roasting swan, and baritone Donnie Ray Albert was equally adept as panting lover and tipsy abbot.
At any rate, a rousing season's closer!