How do you wrap your head around a live, full-scale performance of “Carmina Burana?” There were so many warm bodies at Friday’s (Nov. 10) Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert, including a fully packed Cobb Great Hall audience and more than 300 performers on stage, that it was a relief when the air conditioning kicked in, despite the chilly mid-November weather.
The best way to get a handle on Friday’s concert is to divide it into two halves: pre-swan and post-swan. About halfway through the performance, tenor David Shaler slowly walked to the center of the stage to sing the famous lament of the luckless swan roasting on a spit. In a rare touch of theatricality — for the LSO at least — Shaler came on stage with ersatz swan feathers sprouting absurdly from his shirt and trousers. As he sang, he made pitiful gestures toward the chorus and orchestra, winced at every loud note and stopped his ears, as if saying, “La-la-la, this can’t be happening to me.”
There were a few raised eyebrows among the old-school crowd, but Shaler’s shenanigans didn’t break up the mood or cheapen the experience. On the contrary, the performance was almost too careful up to that point, and it needed something like Shaler’s swan bit to goose it to the next level. Laughter broke out in the hall, and the audience seemed to relax a muscle it didn’t know was clenched. Shaler’s fellow soloists, baritone Babatunde Akinboboye and soprano Penelope Shumate, cracked a smile and settled in a bit more comfortably. Even the musicians and chorus seemed to play and sing with less circumspection and more abandon.
Both pre- and post-swan, the performance was so finely etched, with such meticulous attention to detail, that it felt at times like an intimate chamber music experience. LSO maestro Timothy Muffitt kept the slow interludes in sweet suspension like honey dripping from a spoon — the better to electrify the hall when the tempo suddenly accelerated to juggernaut levels.
A massive chorus combining Michigan State University’s Choral Union, State Singers and University Chorale did full justice to the relentless demands of Orff’s score, summoning scary cyclones, summer idylls and spring zephyrs, as the occasion warranted. The male voices, usually outnumbered by the females in big concerts like this, more than held their own. The synchronization of choir and orchestra was tight as a lobster pinch — an impressive feat when you consider that some of these performers could barely see each other. In one rollicking number, the male chorus bumped along with the pianos like a giddy kid jumping on a trampoline, building up such a head of steam that it was easy to forget the split-second timing required to pull it off.
But “Carmina Burana” is not all fun and games. When the massed voices brought the hammer down on the famous beginning and opening chorus, it felt like the crack of doom, complete with blood-red magma and hellish demons, had opened underneath the comfy seats of the Cobb Great Hall. Astonishingly, the chorus’ diction was crystal clear, despite its vast numbers and booming volume. It must have been hard work getting everyone on the same jot and tittle, let alone the same page, but the hard work paid off. They were hundreds, but they sang as one. Pull a few Latin-chanting monks from the 11th century into the hall and I’m sure they would have understood every word.
Of the three vocal soloists, Akinboboye had the most to chew on, and he pumped plenty of juice into his spirited, engaging performance. His voice surged like a cannonball from the musical battlefield surrounding him, sailing into the back row of the hall — and beyond, for all I know. He was not only in fine voice but fully in character, down to the soles of his shoes. You didn’t need to brush up on your Latin to get the gist of his passionate performance.
Shumate sang with a diamond glow during a less showy part, and Shaler, the aforementioned swan, flattened his voice to a tremulous squawk as he turned agonizingly on the spit.
One of the delights of “Carmina Burana” is following the pauses and exertions of six percussionists. (Eleven, actually, if you count the pianos, timpani and harp.) With that much hardware on hand, it was only logical for the orchestra to tackle a far more recent work, “Umoja: Anthem of Unity,” by composer Valerie Coleman, as a companion piece.
Percussion plays a crucial role in this richly orchestrated composition, beginning with the ultra-high-pitched, glassy sound of a violin bow being drawn across a vibraphone. In contrast to (post-swan) “Carmina Burana,” the LSO kept it tightly wound, deploying a limited color palette suggesting the sunlit clarity and open spaces of the American Southwest. As a metaphorical journey toward unity and peace, “Umoja” would not have benefited from milking or overemphasis, and Muffitt knew it. Whenever the music threatened to get too wet, he was careful to wring it dry, giving every brush stroke of Coleman’s sound painting the air and attention it deserved. Even the last note — usually the hit that drives the nail home — was slightly hushed, as if to remind the audience that this was only music, however hopeful, and the real struggle for peace is far from finished.
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