Just when I thought there was no need to ever hear Carl Orff’s famous cantata Carmina Burana again, French conductor Adrien Perruchon showed up at the Blossom Music Festival to make his The Cleveland Orchestra debut, conducting the Blossom Festival Chorus, Children’s Chorus, and three brilliant soloists. The result was a riveting performance of force and propulsion that wiped away accumulated cobwebs.

Adrien Perruchon © Adrien Perruchon
Adrien Perruchon
© Adrien Perruchon

Carmina Burana, whose libretto was based on bawdy, sometimes lewd medieval writings in Middle High German, Old Provençal and Old French, was first performed in 1937, as Hitler was preparing for war against Europe. Carl Orff was then an unknown composer, but his cantata was an immediate hit, becoming the prototype for countless movie scores and television commercial music over the past 80 years. It was exactly fifty years ago on the date of this performance, 25th August 1968, that The Cleveland Orchestra and Blossom Festival Chorus first performed Carmina Burana, thus making an appropriate celebration for Blossom’s 50th anniversary.

Although Carmina Burana uses relatively simple-sounding and repetitive harmonic progressions and rhythms, it is anything but simple. Precision and a forward sense of motion are vital. Purity of choral sound, diction and intonation are essential. Perruchon seemed particularly attuned to the chorus, with clear baton technique and cues. The Blossom Festival Chorus, prepared by their director Lisa Wong, returned the favor with all of the required attributes, sounding youthful, but singing with great power when necessary. The chorus had mastered Orff’s high, exposed passages. The Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus sang with delicacy and confidence.

Perruchon favored much more varied tempos than are often heard, creating a sense of movement between the sections, as opposed to a series of static “panels” repeated exactly. Indeed, Perruchon often moved directly from one movement to the next without pause. He did not give the audience the chance to lose interest. The final chorus had, if anything, more thrust and power than the opening.

There were three stellar soloists. Baritone Elliot Madore had the most to do. Madore played the title role in this year's production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, in which he sounded light and youthful. In this concert there was more heft to his sound, but still with the capability of reaching Orff’s high notes. At only one moment did he sing in falsetto to reach the highest notes. He added some dramatic flair to his part; engaging briefly in some amusing shtick with the conductor.

Tenor Matthew Plenk had the ideal voice for Orff’s song about a roasting swan. The music requires a heroic sound in a cruelly high tessitura. On the first strophe, Plenk’s voice cracked on the high note, but he coped with it, and then went on to sing it flawlessly and forcefully twice more. Soprano Audrey Luna is perhaps best known for singing stratospheric soprano roles in Thomas Adès’s operas The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel. Her ability to move instantly from the bottom of her range to the top while maintaining sweetness of sound served her well here. Her movements In trutina mentis dubia and Dulcissime were close to perfect.

The concert opened with Aaron Copland’s rarely performed Statements, completed in 1935. This non-programmatic work was written simultaneously with Copland’s very pictorial El Salón México, but they are worlds apart. The six short movements (“statements”) sound completely like Copland’s music, but are austere and often dissonant, with a variety of instrumental textures. The fifth movement “Jingo” is jazzy, incorporating popular music harmonies and rhythms. The final movement “Prophetic” ends with a single indecisive stroke on the tam-tam. Perruchon and The Cleveland Orchestra made a good case for the revival of this unfamiliar work.

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