- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” made its triumphant return to the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall Sunday in a thrilling, season-opening performance by the Choral Arts Society of Washington’s Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of the National Symphony Orchestra’s Leonard Slatkin. Also on the program was Francis Poulenc’s sublime “Gloria” conducted by the Choral Arts Society’s artistic director, Norman Scribner.

Although composed in 1937, it’s no surprise that “Carmina” is one of the few works in a serious repertoire that attracts tweens, teens, and twentysomethings in addition to classical music’s rapidly aging core of fans.

Although set to ancient lyric poetry composed in medieval Latin and German, “Carmina’s” texts extol the worldly virtues of living, loving, and heavy drinking in 12th century Germany — treating these topics with the kind of frankness and swaggering humor one might find on MTV if the producers reached a little higher.

While occasionally echoing the hypnotic effects of Gregorian chant, Mr. Orff’s choral and orchestral settings are brief, repetitious, and driven by pounding, primitive rhythms. It’s a noisy collection of pieces imaginatively yoking ancient customs, longings, and feelings to a clearly modern sensibility.

For Sunday’s performance, maestro Slatkin whipped his substantial forces, which also included the Children’s Chorus of Washington, into a bacchanalian frenzy. Both the well-rehearsed combined choruses and the instrumental forces rose to the challenge, generating an over-the-top sweep of romance and epic grandeur.

It didn’t hurt, either, that Mr. Scribner uncovered at least two uncommonly talented soloists to assist in this effort. Baritone Stephen Powell anchored the work with a surprisingly powerful yet surpassingly expressive voice that spanned the composer’s considerable demands without a great deal of effort. It was a superb, commanding performance in a solo part that often gets short shrift.

Likewise, soprano Laura Whalen was an excellent choice. A lyric soprano with a highly articulate instrument, she added a delicate, humanizing touch to Mr. Orff’s often rowdy, alpha-male proceedings. Perched high in the balcony, tenor Robert Baker made a brief, humorous appearance as the roasted swan. His comedic shtick was a lot of fun, though he occasionally missed his top notes in this painfully high part.

Although it’s a virtual certainty that many in the sold-out crowd showed up at the KenCen primarily for the “Carmina Burana,” Mr. Poulenc’s increasingly popular “Gloria” provided a kind of deco French balance to the more boisterous Germanic celebration of life’s glories and pains.

Composed late in his career, Mr. Poulenc’s “Gloria” received its premiere in Boston in 1961, only two years before the composer’s death. At times reminiscent of his piquant “Concerto for Organ, Strings, and Tympani,” this “Gloria” is a somewhat secular take on the ancient Catholic hymn of joy that remains part of the Mass; save in penitential seasons. Mr. Poulenc’s interpretation blends the color washes of late impressionism with the broad, acerbic strokes of post World War II modernism.

Aside from some initial diction problems, the chorus sang the “Gloria” with great sensitivity. In this they were spectacularly assisted once again by soprano Laura Whalen whose silvery bel canto voice — given more play here than in the “Carmina Burana” — caressed Mr. Poulenc’s music with an otherworldly delicacy. And she was uncannily accurate in the cruel leaps the composer designed into the “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” (“Lord God, Lamb of God”). The Washington National Opera should consider getting her under contract.

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