The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra closed its season Wednesday at Strathmore with a somewhat shaky reading of Orff’s indestructible ear candy, “Carmina Burana,” preceded by two works for percussion ensemble by Christopher Rouse and “Sensemaya” by Silvestre Revueltas.
It is easy for symphonic percussionists to feel underappreciated; the level of virtuosity and versatility they must demonstrate to win an orchestra position is far above what is required of them in 97 percent of the repertoire they end up playing. Thus the Rouse curtain raisers — the Hawaiian-inspired “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku” and the Haitian-inspired “Ogoun Badagris” — were an opportunity that the six musicians (only three are listed on the BSO’s official roster) devoured with relish, if not the last ounce of flamboyance. The two pieces were exercises in rhythmic layering over a steady pulse, played on exotic instruments, but the audience was transfixed. The full orchestra and Music Director Marin Alsop then rounded out the half with the Revueltas, a driving, Stravinsky-esque work in 7 / 8 time that was under-rehearsed.
Orff’s visceral, pounding, secular cantata does “play itself,” as the saying goes, but it does not, unfortunately, sing itself. Any decent traffic cop can hold things together on the podium; few pieces are played as frequently, and orchestras know it backward. But “Carmina” is, in large measure, a showcase for the chorus, and the Morgan State University Choir could not fully carry its load. The group sang with fairly good intonation, but the blend, particularly among the women, was problematic; there were too many operatic voices sticking out. In the big washes of sound, such as “Ave formosissima” near the end, the youthful, lusty power was thrilling. But in quieter passages, flaws abounded. For their part, the men were defeated by the rapid-fire Latin in “In taberna,” which almost fell apart.
Solo baritone Brian Mulligan began superbly, with sophisticated coloring in “Omnia sol temperat.” But in the louder numbers, the stress showed, as he held the score in front of his face like a shield. Kudos to tenor John Tessier, who sang his high notes in the “Roasting Swan,” and to soprano Robin Johannsen, who nailed “Dulcissime,” even if her pitch jumped around in “Amor volat.”
Alsop continues to pace the iconic “O Fortuna” incorrectly, setting a tempo that leaves no room for Orff’s thrilling kick-start on the final “plangite.” Elsewhere, she seemed in too big a hurry between verses, causing unnecessary ensemble lapses as people scrambled to breathe. But, as it always does, the piece brought the house down.
Battey is a freelance writer.