N.C. Symphony, Master Chorale end season with spectacle

correspondentMay 13, 2012 

  • If you go What: Poulenc’s “Gloria” and Orff’s “Carmina Burana” – N.C. Symphony Where: Meymandi Concert Hall, Progress Energy Center, Raleigh When: 8 p.m. Saturday Cost: $45-$67 Contact: 919-733-2750; ncsymphony.org

— Two 20th century choral works, spectacularly performed, made a rousing season finale for the N.C. Symphony’s Raleigh classical series.

An unconventional sacred piece and a theatrical secular work provided a showcase for the considerable talents of the orchestra, chorus and soloists.

The big draw was Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” This hour-long cantata’s opening section, “O Fortuna,” is in constant use in films, TV and commercials underscoring the mystical or awe-inspiring.

Although its resounding choral outbursts and heart-pounding drumbeats speak to fortune and misfortune in life, other sections concern more everyday activities. The texts, from a 13th century collection found in a monastery, celebrate and satirize lust, love, drinking and gambling.

Orff’s deceptively simple melodies and spirited rhythms pose great challenges. The chorus must spit out words at a furious pace, make hairpin turns in dynamics, and shift quickly in sudden syncopations. The N.C. Master Chorale conquered all these obstacles in one of its most impressive performances in memory. Director Alfred E. Sturgis honed his singers into a precise, rich-voiced ensemble.

They followed conductor Grant Llewellyn’s every gesture in an exciting, vibrant reading, emphasizing the orchestra’s brilliant percussion section in Orff’s demands for bells and wood blocks, gong and timpani. In the grandest moments, with all the brass section ablaze, the hall’s rafters seemed to shake.

Orff saves his most daunting tests for the vocal soloists. Metropolitan Opera regular Barry Banks had only one solo but he was instantly the audience favorite, applying his firmly focused tenor to the impossibly high lines of the Roasted Swan section.

Baritone Jason McKinney displayed superb acting skills as drunken abbot and dreamy lover, his singing consistently warm and subtle, needing just a little more edge in the loudest passages. Soprano Heather Buck floated through the sensuous filigree assigned her, successfully nailing the cruelly exposed high notes.

The program opened with Francis Poulenc’s “Gloria,” a 25-minute piece that approaches the familiar Latin mass text with quirky astringency and jaunty playfulness, seemingly irreverent but ultimately moving. Llewellyn led the orchestra in an intense yet lyrical performance, the women’s chorus suitably ethereal; the men’s satisfyingly bold. Heather Buck’s solos had lovely tone but too much flutter and lacked a firm center.


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