The Madison Symphony Orchestra’s final program this season, debuting Friday night at Overture Center, is the loudest and noisiest heard at least since its last performance of Carl Orff’s monster cantata Carmina Burana ten years ago.
Orff (1895-1982) is best remembered as a pioneer in music education and in creating musical exercises for children, and save for this hour-long setting of medieval secular poems his operas, theatrical and choral works are largely ignored these days. Heavily orchestrated yet simplistically textured, there is nothing subtle or sensitive about Orff’s driving, pulsating, repetitious score for Carmina Burana. But somehow he got things right with this one, and it has excited audiences and become a strong popular favorite, enjoying its sixth MSO presentation.
Conductor John DeMain musters an army of performers to guarantees a great crowd-pleaser; joining the full orchestra is the Symphony Chorus (167 singers) plus 81 local youth choir members. Their distant placement at the back of the stage is less a problem in this music than it could be otherwise, as the simple choral writing, Orff’s avoidance of orchestra over-riding and simple force of numbers make the choral sections come through strongly.
Three vocal soloists are called for. Soprano Jeni Houser has only low energy solos to present, but handles them with grace and sweetness. The baritone has the most to do, often pushed into the highest possible vocal range; Keith Phares sings his “roles” with a firm voice and a degree of dramatic flair. The tenor has only one solo, in falsetto range, and Thomas Leighton nearly steals the show with his artful projection of the song, a tragicomic lament of a swan being roasted on a spit.
Opening the program is another blockbuster, Ottorino Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. Simultaneously a composer for the theater and a musical antiquarian, Respighi was an orchestral master in the wake of his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov. The Pines is a big-orchestra monument that survives its own excesses, and this spectacular work offers more of a challenge than the Orff score for the MSO to show its extraordinary facility and power.
There are two parallels between the works presented. First, both reflect flirtations with Fascist regimes, to which the composers may not have officially subscribed but whose favors they enjoyed. Second, each were part of trilogies: Orff added two subsequent scores setting ancient Latin poems, to form what he called Trionfi; Respighi joined The Pines with The Fountains of Rome and Roman Holidays for his so-called “Roman trilogy.”
The program repeats in Overture Hall Saturday, April 30, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 1, at 2:30 p.m.