When Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst had to bow out of this past weekend’s performances of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana due to a recent back injury, the orchestra’s talented young assistant conductor, James Feddeck, inherited a high-profile assignment. The set of four concerts had been heavily promoted and were sold out. Feddeck chose not to take the safe and easy way out, with a bland run-through; instead he totally rethought Carmina and came up with a strikingly fresh and exciting reading. He was assisted by three top-notch soloists: soprano Rebecca Nelsen, tenor Nicholas Phan, and baritone Stephen Powell, all making their Cleveland Orchestra debuts at these concerts. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Cleveland Orchestra Children’s Chorus were well-prepared and responsive to Feddeck’s approach.

James Feddeck
James Feddeck

Carl Orff’s 45-minute cantata, first performed in 1937, is based on a set of very bawdy, anonymous 12th-century Latin, German and French poems that speak of springtime, love, drink and fate. Orff rejected traditional musical development, but employs driving, primitive, four-square rhythms and traditionally diatonic harmonies. Carmina requires a huge orchestra including two pianos and a huge battery of percussion, but for much of the work it is used sparingly, often only a few instruments. But what appears simple on first hearing turns out to be quite complex. It was these complicated orchestral details and balances that made James Feddeck’s interpretation interesting, for instance the almost-imperceptible triangle in the chorus “Veris leta facies”, the flute and timpani duet in the first orchestral dance, and later an unexpected (or at least usually unnoticed) tuba glissando. Feddeck favored brisk tempos. In the first “O fortuna” chorus (and concluding epilogue), he began deliberately, but after the opening section, he used a much quicker tempo that picked up even more speed as the chorus proceeded. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus had extraordinarily crisp diction throughout the reams of words they were required to sing. The chorus sounded fresh, with mostly excellent blend and pitch, and they were up to the extreme dynamic demands of the piece.

The three soloists all brought touches of theatricality to their performances. Stephen Powell was especially effective in the patter song “Estuans interius ira vehementi”, “In Taberna”, and later as the drunken Abbot of Cockaigne, and in his use of otherworldly falsetto in “Dies, nox et omnia” in the third part, “Cours d’Amours”. Pity the poor tenor soloist in Carmina Burana, who has to sit for a half hour, then has to sing one of the most demanding arias in all of musical literature, the lament of a swan roasting on the rotisserie spit. Nicholas Phan was up to the challenge. The aria has several cruelly high passages that many tenors “fake through” in a sort of falsetto. Mr Phan sang those phrases in courageously full voice. His sound at that altitude was not particularly beautiful, but it was thrilling and daring, like a high-wire act without a net. In between the strophes of his song, he used several amusing gestures to indicate just how hot the swan was feeling in the heat. At the end of the aria, he suddenly and abruptly sat down – the swan met his demise. Soprano Rebecca Nelsen has some of the few serene and supremely beautiful passages in the whole work. Her aria “In trutina” was a moment of time suspended, as the young girl contemplates the value of her chastity as opposed to the momentary pleasure of earthly desire. Two movements later, the same girl opts for the temporal in a spectacular leap of two octaves from the bottom of the soprano range to a remarkable high note that is followed by a passage of sensual coloratura, as she says to her boyfriend, “Here I am. Take me”. All three soloists should be invited back for more standard repertoire.

The epilogue of Carmina Burana repeats the opening chorus, “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi”. After the opening passage and a long grand pause, James Feddeck whipped the orchestra and chorus into even greater frenzy than before, with a blazing closing chord. All the participants were greeted with extended curtain calls.

In a “what were they thinking” bit of programming, the concert opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Oboe d’Amore Concerto in A major, featuring the orchestra’s English horn player Robert Walters as soloist. The fifteen-minute concerto was charming, with The Cleveland Orchestra pared down to chamber orchestra size. The oboe d’amore, in between the size of an oboe and an English horn, has a gentle and mellow sound. Mr. Walter’s playing was sensitive, with stylish ornamentation, but it was as if conductor and players were already focused on the Orff to come. It was just weird on this concert.