One of the pleasures of attending live concerts is discovering sounds that recordings often mask or fail to highlight. Occasionally, the sheer enormity of the experience can be so stunning that I reel from it for days. The “2013 Season Special Event” of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on Thursday was one of those occasions. The main attraction of the evening was Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, but to whet our appetite guest conductor Long Yu led the orchestra in Enchantements oubliés by contemporary Chinese composer Chen Qigang.

Long Yu © CAMI
Long Yu
© CAMI

Born in Shanghai in 1951 into an artistic family, Chen Qigang and was caught in the self-destructive vortex of persecution in the Cultural Revolution that ravaged China for a decade in the 60s and 70s. While his father spent time in a labour camp, Qigang underwent “ideological re-education”, a euphemism for brow-beating into believing the political dogmas of the day. In 1983, he had an opportunity to study abroad and spent four years under the tutelage of Olivier Messiaen in Paris. His Enchantements oubliés (“Forgotten Enchantments”) bears the fingerprint of the finest French musical traditions of the early 20th century that Debussy and Ravel exemplify.

Scored for strings and percussion with no brass or woodwind, Enchantements oubliés opens with a serene four-note figure that evolves into an ethereal and picturesque melody on strings floating lightly in the air. The tranquility gradually gives way to a more vigorous rhythm, urged on by percussion. After alternating a few times, the serene and energetic themes eventually combine into a climax dominated by the low strings, over which the violins play a distinctly Chinese melody to close. The composer is quoted as saying that the work “seeks to express human emotion in its simplest, most direct forms” – such fundamental pleasures in life as spending time with the family or having a nice meal when hungry – but I can’t help feeling that he is also trying to communicate a subtle conflict between the peace we seek and the demands life makes on us.

“With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin”, Carl Orff is said to have written to his publisher. It seems they also end there. Despite its opening bars coming close to those of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in terms of instant recognition, not much else of Orff’s output is well known. Beyond Carmina, Orff is better known as an educator than a composer. Yet the enduring appeal of the work lies in its raw rhythmic energy and depictions of primal human instincts.

Unlike other attempts at dramatising the visual potential of the work, in line with the composer’s concept of “Theatrum Mundi” (“Total Theatre”) that combines music, speech and movement, the Sydney Symphony on Thursday stuck to a pure aural interpretation. Joined by soloists, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and the Sydney Children’s Choir, the orchestra delivered a stunning soundscape that reverberated far beyond the Opera House concert hall.

The work consists of 24 songs based on medieval texts written in Latin, Middle High German and French by roaming monks in Beuern, a small town in Southern Germany. “O Fortuna”, the most famous of the songs, opens and closes the set, broadly divided into five sections: “Primo Vere” (“In Springtime”), “Uf dem anger” (“On the Lawn”), “In Taberna” (“In the Tavern”), “Cour d’amours” (“The Court of Love”) and “Blanziflor et Helena” (“Blanziflor and Helena”).

Orff went for the jugular in orchestration, including a large percussion section, celesta and two pianos. The sheer volume of the combined orchestral and vocal colours would have been overwhelming; but Long Yu added more. With an animated and resolute conducting style, he coaxed out of the choirs sparkling and perfectly timed clarity and precision. It’s perhaps trite to say that the orchestra never missed a beat, but that may have been easier said than done in Carmina with its copious rhythm changes; and the sweet tone of the flute in opening dance of “Uf dem anger” was enchanting.

The solo parts are more than challenging, repeatedly pushing the limits of the human voice. Baritone Changyong Liao had the most exposure, shining with dexterity in the fast drinking song “Estuans interius” (“Seething Inside”) and the mostly a cappella “Ego sum abbas” (“I am the abbot of Cockaigne”). Tenor Paul McMahon gave it his all in “Olim lacus colueram” (“Once I swam in lakes”), a bizarre and grotesque account of a swan being skewered on a spit, replete with grimaces and hand gestures. That soprano Milica Ilic didn’t sound as if she was shrieking in “Dulcissime” (“Sweetest boy”) was no mean feat.

I didn’t come to Carmina Burana expecting an evening of soothing and intimate music, but the pulsating vigour with which Long Yu attacked the material had me leaping up in standing ovation. It was an evening to remember.

*****