Percussion-driven “Carmina Burana” with the Orpheus Choir a triumph

The Orpheus Choir of Wellington presents:

CASEY CANGELOSI – Jazz on Saturn
NEY ROSAURO – Marimba Concert No. 1*
Yoshiko Tsuruta (marimba)*
Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble

CARL ORFF – Carmina Burana (arr.Wilhelm Killmayer)
Amelia Berry (soprano)
Declan Cudd (tenor)
Joel Amosa (bass-baritone)
Wellington Region School Choirs –
Wellington East Girls’ College CANTATA /Wellington Girls’ College TEAL VOICES
Kelburn Normal School / Scots College / Catholic Cathedral Children’s Choir
Samuel Marsden Collegiate Choir
Orpheus Choir of Wellington
Thomas Nikora / Stephen Clothier (pianos)
Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble
Brent Stewart (conductor)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 7th November, 2019

Oddly enough, nowhere in the programme could I see mentioned that this was a version of Carl Orff’s most renowned work prepared by his “disciple” Wilhelm Killmayer in 1956, and authorized by Orff himself, 20 years after the original composition, one allowing smaller instrumental ensembles the opportunity to perform the piece. While relishing the prospect of hearing the Orpheus Choir’s “different” take on the composer’s evergreen “Carmina Burana”, I was nevertheless wondering how the absence of a full orchestra would “work” in music that relies for a good deal of its impact on instrumental colour and weight of tone. I needn’t have worried in the slightest, as it turned out, as the sheer energy and coruscating excitement generated by the voices, the two pianos and the ensemble of percussion instruments under Brent Stewart’s direction made for suitably overwhelming results – different, but just as impactful. And though one registered an instrumental phrase here and there with less “projection” than in the full orchestra version, what was BEING played almost everywhere caught us up most thrillingly in a “here and now” of it all that left no need for comparisons – just a feeling of being immersed in an oceanic surge from all concerned of total and utter commitment to the music.

We were given an enticing taste of the excitement in store for us in the concert’s main work by the Orchestra Wellington Percussion Ensemble’s presentation of two first-half items, the first featuring the Ensemble alone, in an explosive item whose energies recalled the great days of Wellington’s own “Strike” percussion group (one of whose members, Jeremy Fitzsimons, was in tonight’s ensemble). This was a work called “Jazz on Saturn”, written in 2018 by American composer Casey Cangelosi, for percussion quintet – the programme note promised us, among other things, “an exuberant finale – complete with party poppers!” Unsure of what PRECISELY this meant, I was nevertheless grooving most uninhibitedly with the music’s almost Dionysian exuberances in places, while registering, within a basic trajectory of pulse the most beguiling contrasts of texture and colour – mere touches and splashes of gentle scintillation whose whisperings were as impressive in their own way as the ensemble’s’ full-on virtuoso roar – when at the explosive end of an irresistible crescendo the air was suddenly filled with a fusillade of confetti and streamers amid the ensemble’s concluding payoff!

Orpheus Choir Director Brent Stewart who came on stage to introduce and direct the next item apologised to the first few rows of the audience for their unexpected confetti-shower amid great amusement, though I was half-waiting for him to generate further merriment by requesting of those same bedecked rows of people something like, “Now, could we have it all back, please?”

Stewart then introduced and led a warm welcome to the Japanese-born New Zealand-domiciled marimba soloist Yoshiko Tsuruta, appearing to perform what has become the “Concierto de Aranjuez” of the marimba world, a work by Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro, his “Marimba Concerto No.1”, a piece which, according to the programme note, has received over 3,000 performances since its composition in 1986. As graceful and spectacular to watch as the music she played was to listen to, Tsuruta demonstrated complete and utter control and poise in her delivery of this most attractive music, easefully wielding two mallets in each hand as if endowed with the same by nature, and coaxing, both energetically and hypnotically, the music from her enormous instrument – the largest marimba I’d ever seen!

Rhythmically angular and motoric at the beginning, the music relaxed into a more song-like mode as the first movement progressed, the sounds quixotically exploring contrasts between vigorous and lyrical. The second movement opened mysteriously, low sounds providing a contrast with fragments and scintillations, creating a vast and resonant sound-space into which were released some evocative creations. A third movement seemed to me to comprise variants of a sinuous waltz-theme, darkly portentous and symbolic of time slowly passing…… angular-rhythmed introduction brought in what seemed like a final movement, one whose six-plus five rhythm created in itself beautifully choreographic movements and gesturings, a solo cadenza allowing the player some repose from the tyranny of insistent trajectory, before once again rising to the challenge of the final, vigorous gestures which concluded the work.

And so, to the second half of the concert, and “Carmina Burana” – I thought it was a wonderful idea to project the English translations of Orff’s Latin texts for us to read and enjoy during the work, even if the exercise straightaway reinforced my feeling that most conductors I’ve heard in concert or on record take the famous opening chorus “O Fortuna” too quickly to my ears, turning what the words indicate is a harsh, piteous lament – one that concludes with the words “mecum omnes plangite” (Weep with me, all of you!) – into a jolly, rousing, foot-tapping number, with the dark, ominous rhythms left to skate merrily along the music’s surface! Brent Stewart’s tempo at the outset, while making for superficially exciting results didn’t really explore the music’s dark, pessimistic mood – but neither did Marc Taddei’s treatment of the same passage in Orchestra Wellington’s 2014 performance of the full version, again with the Orpheus Choir.

Fortunately, the rest was, in a word, magnificent! Stewart’s insistence on urgency between verses and choruses in numbers such as the following “Fortune plango vulnera” (I weep for luck’s wounds) kept the music’s juices flowing, as did the choir’s crisp articulation of their lines – and the sheer energy of both Thomas Nikora’s and Stephen Clothier’s piano playing combined with the excitement generated by the other instrumentalists to really pin back our ears!  Then it was suddenly all light and air with beautiful, birdsong-like piano and percussion sounds at the beginning of “Primo Vere” (In Springtime), the words almost breathlessly chanted, as if the singers were mesmerised by the music’s beauty, the “ah-ah” passages particularly magical in effect.

Baritone Joel Amosa delivered his “Omnia sol tempera” (The sun soothes all things) with great sensitivity, fining down his head-voice to poetic, almost vulnerable effect in places – later, he brought plenty of energy to his “In Taberna”, though he was at full stretch throughout the higher passages – as he was with the Third Part’s “Dies nox et omnia” (Day, night and all things), which he nevertheless hung onto throughout the outlandish voice-changes with great determination – however, he greatly relished his rollicking part in the third section’s “Tempus et iocundum”, along with the soprano’s and children’s voices.

I particularly enjoyed the theatricality of the performance, such as the vivid painting of the opening “Floret silva nobilis” (The noble wood) we heard in the cantata’s second part, where women’s and men’s voices enacted a vignette of longing – the women’s plaintive “Ubi es antiquus meus amicus?” (Where is my old lover?) answered by the men’s “Hinc ecqitavit” (He rode away) in heart-breakingly jogtrot rhythm! This was followed by an almost visceral depiction of an older woman “glamouring” herself up to catch a younger lover – “Seht mich an, jungen man!” (the words lapsing into German at this point!), the choir humming a seductive chorale in-between the verses with almost insouciant suggestiveness. Another intensely theatrical moment was superbly realised by tenor Declan Cudd, in his depiction of the roasted swan singing of happier days before suffering his ignoble fate on the spit – vivid and anguishedly-coloured singing from the tenor, punctuated by lamenting interjections from the men’s voices – “Miser! Miser modo niger, es ustus fortiter!” (Wretch that I am! – now black and roasting fiercely!).

Soprano Amelia Berry had to wait for the cantata’s third part “Cour D’Amours” (Court of Love) to be heard, though as is usually the case, the effect was arresting, with the pianos, tinkling percussion and children’s voices sweetly preluding the soprano’s entry with their “Amor volat undique” (Love flies everywhere). Berry’s sweetness of tone captured our sensibilities in an instant and held us still, as she did also with “Stetit puella” (A girl stood) over its two verses. And though at full vocal stretch with the cruelly-demanding “Dulcissime” (Sweetest one), Berry held her stratospheric vocal line steadfastedly and truly, till all was properly given and spent.

How resoundingly everybody then poured their energies into the following  “Ave formisissima!” (Hail, most beautiful), here given plenty of space and weight, the stage-surround lights suddenly and effectively joining in with additional illumination! And if the concluding “O Fortuna” again went like an express train, the concluding bars of the work reaffirmed the undoubted effectiveness of this percussion-driven version of Orff’s choral masterpiece, with sounds saturating the precincts of the hall and occasioning a rapturous audience response! Definitely a triumph for all concerned!