The National Symphony Orchestra swept aside any doubts about opening its subscription season with Carl Orff’s bawdy and blatant cantata Carmina Burana by pairing it with two far more devotional works by 20th-century composers. It didn’t hurt that the vocal showcase to open the NSO season generated a 90%-capacity audience in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall – no mean feat for a Thursday evening in Washington in a season of big questions for American symphony orchestras. It’s also a sign of the increasing cultural impact in the city of music director Gianandrea Noseda, now beginning his third season with the NSO.

Gianandrea Noseda © Steve Sherman
Gianandrea Noseda
© Steve Sherman

The Choral Arts Society of Washington and the Children’s Chorus of Washington delivered a well-detailed, highly motivated reading of the Latin and old German and French texts within Carmina Burana. Quivering woodwind lines were nicely present within the tension of the opening and closing number, the now-ubiquitous “O Fortuna” that’s been appropriated for television commercials, video games and other mercenary reasons.

The long-limbed Maestro Noseda, already famous in Washington for his vertical gesticulations in louder or simply more complex works, was actually quite contained in his conducting of the large instrumental and vocal forces, often pulling his elbows in to present a highly focused beat and dynamic shadings to the assembled forces.

Orff’s music doesn’t develop so much as it abruptly shifts pace, meter and mood. Early in the piece a few of the men of the Choral Arts Society would ever so slightly fail to brake their singing of the Latin and German syllables at the moment where the tempo suddenly downshifted. It’s the type of imprecision that would tend to correct itself in the following two performances of the concert at the Kennedy Center.

Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, who often presents an athletic presence as the former hockey player he is on the Metropolitan Opera and other stages, delivered a rich and rounded tone to his solos, although the baritone writing of the piece eventually becomes exceptionally high and somewhat forced for many performers of the role, including Madore.

Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini was in terrific voice as the “Roasted Swan” with a ringing tone, albeit without much of the somewhat juvenile humorous edge that other performers can bring to the piece. Soprano Amy Owens delivered a beautiful, vibrant tone in her contributions to the latter portion of the work.

Prior to Carmina Burana, the women of the Choral Arts Society joined the NSO’s strings and timpani for a performance of Francis Poulenc’s Litanies à la Vierge noire. Poulenc’s music, with its surprising but always gratifying modulations, wonderfully depicts the text of the litany prayed in the chapel of Rocamadour, France to the Vierge noire or Black Virgin. It acts almost as a musical presaging of Poulenc’s operatic masterpiece, Dialogues of the Carmelites, composed 20 years later.

The composition evokes the mood felt by Poulenc after the death in a car accident of fellow composer and close friend Pierre-Octave Ferroud. This disquisition on a given man’s fate was thus a pious contrast to a very different depiction of the same Fortune as delivered in a blast at the beginning of Carmina Burana. It’s almost too bad the concert’s intermission between these two compositions interrupted the juxtaposition of those two very different commentaries on the fate of individuals.

Noseda opened the evening with an elegiac piece entitled blue cathedral by American composer Jennifer Higdon. Written in 1999 in memory of her brother, Higdon uses a more effective and meaningful combination of percussion instruments – both traditional ones and newly minted ideas, like eight tuned crystal water glasses – to evoke a mood without the pretentiousness or overeager effort to impress found in other percussion-heavy contemporary works.

Higdon says she wrote the composition while imagining a glass cathedral in the sky, within which a dialogue between flute and clarinet represents an attempted reach between the living (the sister) and the departed (the brother). Along with such other depictions of cathedrals in the repertoire, such as Claude Debussy’s piano prelude La Cathédrale engloutie (The Submerged Cathedral), the NSO premiere of Higdon’s composition, technically representing the very first notes of the 2019-2020 concert season, was an enlightened and imaginative selection by Noseda and the capital city’s orchestra.

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