The Carmina Burana With The Pasadena Master Chorale

carmina-coverCarl Orff’s lusty Carmina Burana holds a special place in the hearts and ears of many non music lovers. Most who have never enjoyed a full performance of the piece may refer to sections of Orff’s work as “that music from Excalibur” or “the theme from Glory.” Indeed, the emotional impact of the cantata, based upon Medieval texts discovered in a Bavarian monastery in 1803, is so universal that sections of the piece have sonically illustrated war, peace, braggadocio, militarism and even instant coffee.

The power of the music rests firmly on the art of choral singing. For un-classically inclined musicians this roughly translates to “a lot of people singing at the same time without making a lot of mistakes.” Standing in the midst of 20,000 basketball fans screaming “We Will Rock You” can get the old adrenal glands pumping, but that experience is smashed to ashes against the timpanic downbeat and opening “O Fortuna” of the Carmina Burana when performed by a skilled ensemble.

On May 3, 2009 I had the pleasure of witnessing just such an event as the Pasadena Master Chorale under the expert baton of Artistic Director Jeffrey Bernstein presented the Carmina Burana to an overflow crowd at the First Congregational Church in Pasadena, California. Big budget organizations normally perform the piece with full orchestra but the impact of the music was certainly not compromised by Mr. Bernstein’s use of the smaller chamber version of instrumental accompaniment. Melodic/harmonic chores were handled on piano by Shawn Kirchner and Renee Gilormini while Wade Culbreath on timpani and percussionists Theresa Dimond, Joe Mitchell, John Magnussen, Ken McGrath and Aaron Smith kicked what can only be described as serious ass in executing Orff’s challenging percussion score.

The eighty voice Master Chorale sounded twice their number from the opening phrase on. This group is not your average community choir. Sopranos and basses can be found at most decent church choirs these days for about $4.75 a gallon for the high octane models, so it is not surprising for an ensemble like the Master Chorale to be well stocked. It’s the inner voices, however, that often can be the difference between a competent choir and an exceptional one. Genuine tenors and sonorous altos, like the meat in the middle of a choral sandwich, can sometimes make even stale bread taste like a French dip from Philippe’s. Although the Master Chorale’s tenor section is the smallest by number, the sound palette of the entire group is well balanced. As any vocalist can attest, singing with power offers less challenges than achieving blend, cohesion, intensity and expressiveness at pianissimo levels. Mr. Bernstein has trained this highly skilled choir well and from top to bottom, they sing with a purpose and as one voice.

The Carmina Burana was composed in modern times and the score is well-stocked with metronome indications. As a musician of the heart as opposed to the clock, I normally don’t question the conductor’s choices as to tempo but I couldn’t help feeling as though some sections of the piece were performed a click or two faster than I would think comfortable. The text is extremely wordy and I sensed a bit of hastiness in the brighter sections. Perhaps it can be written off to the acoustics of the venue but one or two beats per minute less here and there might have allowed more definitive interplay between the voices and the intricate accompaniment. It also would have guaranteed a longer performance which, when the closing “Fortuna Imeratrix Mundi” was just an echo in the rafters, would surely have pleased everyone in the house. As it was, the audience rose instantly to their feet and stayed there for an appreciatively long ovation.

Jacquelynne Fontaine

Jacquelynne Fontaine

Abdiel Gonzalez and Jacquelynne Fontaine went above and beyond in rendering the lush melodies that Carl Orrf composed for solo baritone and soprano. The baritone solo can be particularly challenging for the “Dies Nox Et Omnia” requires the soloist to sing the opening melody as a lyric baritone, the release section almost in the manner of a counter tenor, yet maintaining sweetness and size, and then deliver the final “Per un baser” in the low range with authority. This is not a role for one dimensional singers and Mr. Gonzalez sang the piece with emotion, dexterity and musicianship beyond what might be expected of someone with his youthful appearance. As for Ms Fontaine, anyone who knows the piece will be on the edge of their seat halfway through the jaunty “Tempus Est iocundum” in anticipation of the climactic “Dulcissime” and Ms Fontaine did not disappoint. The highlight of the soprano solo is only four measures long but requires the soloist to execute flawlessly a very difficult, emotional and exposed line with minimal accompaniment.

Jeffrey Bernstein

Jeffrey Bernstein

Another welcome feature of the performance was the appearance of an actual children’s choir. The Washington Middle School Glee Club, directed by Cynthia Abbot, patiently waited until their turn at bat and proved why music education in our schools should be nurtured at a high priority. Well done.

The Carmina Burana, from a choral standpoint, is not a particularly difficult piece. It is high on the list for many crack high school choirs. The harmonies are sonorous, the dissonances logical, the vocal ranges not insurmountable. But when real men and women roll up their sleeves and go to work as Mr. Bernstein and co. did on May 3rd, look out. Simplicity performed with mature conviction is something altogether different than getting a high school group to pretend they know what they are supposed to be conveying. The piece will grow hair, don medieval chain-mail and the audience will see the 12th century sunlight glinting from the points of marching halberds.

Next up for the Pasadena Master Chorale is The German Requiem by Johannes Brahms. The introspective piece is a departure from the traditional requiem mass format and for it, Brahms has composed some of the most glorious choral music in the literature. I am already salivating to hear what Mr. Bernstein and his excellent choir have in store.

2 Responses to “The Carmina Burana With The Pasadena Master Chorale”

  • Pieps

    Hi Pete :) ,

    good reading !!! Strange piece of music , that Carmina … kinda gothic 😉 … but nice to hear from time to time .

    HAVE FUN !!! yours Pieps

  • PMC Tenor

    Thank you for your kind shout-out to the tenors & thoughtful review of our performance.