Earthly pleasures celebrated with a heavenly concert

13. Apr. 2007 – The Spokane Symphony, a stage full of choral cohorts and a trio of soloists gave spring a roof-raising welcome Friday. The work that the standing-room-only audience came to hear was Carl Orff's lusty cantata "Carmina Burana." The performance was a rousing success rewarded by a long, well-deserved standing ovation.


The work that opened Friday's program was one that people likely did not come to hear - Felix Mendelssohn's "Reformation" Symphony. Among Mendelssohn's five mature symphonies, the "Reformation" is probably the least frequently performed. It has not been heard at Spokane Symphony concerts since 1975. More's the pity, too, since it happens to be a beautiful symphony combining the composer's gift for melodic writing and deft hand at interesting orchestration. And it was lovingly performed, too.


I, for one, would like to hear the "Reformation" Symphony played in a concert where it was less likely to be overshadowed by its companion work. But conductor Eckart Preu's pairing of this symphony and "Carmina Burana" made an interesting point. Mendelssohn always makes instruments sound like singers. Orff, as Preu pointed out in his pre-concert talk, often makes his singers sound like percussion instruments.


The feature that gives "Carmina Burana" its theatrical power is its insistent rhythmic thrust. Friday's performance featured the Symphony Chorale augmented by choirs from Spokane Falls Community College, Eastern Washington University and Washington State University plus a segment of the Spokane Area Children's Chorus - making a choir of nearly 250.


What was not surprising was the sheer power of that many singers. The opening "O Fortuna!" bounded off the stage like a jolt. But what was a happy surprise was the incisiveness such a large group, which had few rehearsals together, brought to Orff's work. And furthermore, the diction of the texts, a combination of medieval Latin, Middle High German and Old French (sometimes a combination of two or all three), was extremely well done. Congratulations to Lori Wiest, Charles Zimmerman, Randel Wagner and Kristina Ploeger, the directors of those choirs.


The soloists - soprano Dawn Marie Wolski, tenor Christopher Pfund and baritone Hugh Russell - were a remarkable group. Each was a splendid singer, but each also brought a riveting element of drama to their parts, which celebrate earthly pleasures: dancing, drinking, gambling and lovemaking.


Russell was especially effective as the raging loser in "Estuans interius" and as the swaggering drunken abbot in "Ego sum abbas." The tenor, poor guy, has only one solo and a comic one at that: "Olim lacus colueram," the song of a swan recalling his life of beauty flying over his home by the lakes as he is blackened by being roasted on a spit. Pfund dealt expertly with the ironic humor and his part's frighteningly high range.


I confess I waited for 50 minutes for my favorite moments in "Carmina Burana" when a young girl sings of her wavering indecision, weighing in "In trutina" which is better - chastity or lovemaking. Wolski was the picture - and had the sound - of the pondering adolescent. Minutes later she surrenders to her swain in a soaring melisma that has "sex" stamped all over it, and Wolski made the most of it without ever leaving the role of the teenager discovering physical love.


This was a concert to revel in, and the orchestra, choruses, soloists and conductor Eckart Preu allowed the audience to do just that.


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