I was at a concert: O fortune, like the moon, etc.!

The wheels on the life go round and round…

Last weekend guest conductor Nicholas McGegan ventured outside the world of early music for performances of Haydn and Orff with the Kansas City Symphony. We arrived an hour early under the auspices of soaking in the Saturday night ambience (and finding parking that wouldn’t involve us waiting 45 minutes to wade through a gerontological sea of humanity on the way out) and figured we’d enjoy a cup of coffee and a glass of red wine. Urgent bulletin: they don’t serve red wine. Of any kind. At any point. And the coffee, while possibly delicious, is marred by the use of sketchy-ass creamer that erodes any semblance of good flavor. Kansas City’s Roasterie makes tremendous coffee, so why waste it with cream that would be better served at Waffle House? It’s like playing a Mahler symphony on keytar. Did I mention that I am an elitist prick when it comes to food and drink? And now you know!

We took our seats and I perused the tubes of the internet for a while. The gentleman behind me asked for an update on the Kansas State vs. Baylor game, a theme which would re-appear throughout the evening. After delivering the sobering news, the concert opened with Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony no. 94, arguably his most popular work. McGegan employed something of a “don’t look now, but we are on the verge of being in the Romantic period!” approach, the tuttis sounding utterly Beethovenian (this is my first use of the word Beethovenian. Probably my last, too.). It was a bit heavy-handed for my taste – there’s an agility and lightness that seems to me to be intrinsic in Haydn that was missing – and the interpretation led to a couple sloppy moments where the ensemble broke apart a bit (particularly in the finale). The minuet and trio, however, were spectacular. McGegan and the orchestra got into an epic groove, swinging like a motherfucker with perfectly nuanced ebbs and flows and perfect articulation. Overall the performance may have been a mild disappointment, but the the minuet was so good that I am remembering it with much more fondness than I initially felt on Saturday night.

After an intermission that featured, in order, another check of the scores, a brief conversation about an odd haircut, a drink of the worst water from a fountain that I have ever had (and I grew up in Las Vegas, which had rocket fuel in the their tap water), yet another check of the scores, and the delivery of the news that K-State was trailing by two touchdowns at halftime to two different people sitting near me, the stage and choral loft were filled to the brim for a performance of Carl Orff’s magnum opus (what’s the latin word for “only piece anyone gives a shit about?”) Carmina Burana, a collection of 13th-century poems found in a German abbey. If that sounds like the recipe for music about drinking and chicks and shit, you know more about religion than I do. As it is, they provided the impetus for one of the most popular musical works of all-time, a gaudy spectacle of colors and strophes. Oh God, the strophes.

First, a few notes on the performance itself. The chorus was superb and displayed a monumental range of both sound and style. The orchestra was for the most part on point, particularly the always-reliably-awesome percussion section. I had a couple quibbles (most notably the fact that there was not enough raucous trumpet at the end of each O fortuna, one of the few times in the repertoire that a trumpet player could probably get away with musically slaughtering everything in his path and get away with it), but on the whole the band was flexibile, responsive, and capable of brute force (my concerns from the last concert about the hall opening up are concerns no more). McGegan’s interpretation was pretty straight ahead and generally fine.

Soprano Cyndia Sieden was magnificent, the highlight of the performance to my ears. She has a wonderfully sweet tone and smooth, controlled vibrato that reminds me of Sylvia McNair, which will inevitably lead me to suggest that Sieden be used to sing Das himmlische leben the next time someone does Mahler 4. Make it happen, universe. Baritone Michael Kelly too possesses a sweet, graceful tone and on the softer bits it was tremendously appealing, but it was swallowed up in the louder sections. I imagine he is wonderful in the realm of lieder, and in fact I just found this video on whatever the hell Vimeo is of him performing Winterreise, which I think would be right up his alley (and it’s now in my queue of things to do!). Tenor Marc Molomot gave the crowd a good laugh with his brief appearance, delivering a whimsical but still musically satisfying performance. His approach to the Olim lacus colueram was straight comedy, which is how it is generally presented (which is why it is so well-received by audiences), but I’ve never understood why it’s approached that way – the words are pretty fucked up:

Once I had dwelt on lakes,
once I had been beautiful,
when I was a swan.
Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

The cook turns me back and forth,
I am roasted to a turn on my pyre,
now the waiter serves me.
Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

Now I lie on the dish,
and I cannot fly,
I see the gnashing teeth.
Poor wretch! Now black and well roasted!

I don’t know why this is funny. I only bring this up because when I was in grad school at U of U, we performed Carmina and the tenor soloist, Bob Breault (who was also the Opera Director), took the approach that, at least to me, makes sense: absolute fucking terror. I vividly remember those of us in the brass section losing our shit in the first rehearsal when we heard him go. It was out of this world, the sort of musical moment that only happens when someone is not only committed to something, but has faith in their ability to execute that commitment. I actually have a clip from the subsequent performance here for your listening pleasure:

Needless to say, immediately after returning from the concert my first and only thought was that I needed to hear Breault crushing it, and I did.

The performance was enthusiastically received, as it usually is, and the performers were indeed deserving of the accolades given them. The popularity of Carmina Burana can’t really be denied, but I don’t know that I really get it. Holy shit is it a lot of strophic songs. I’m not opposed to strophic songs at all (see the video of Winterreise I linked to in this very post), but there’s something about the intimacy of the setting that seems utterly necessary to me. Developing a sense of musical direction is difficult when dealing with strophic forms, which is one reason there are so few truly great large-scale song cycles (Schubert and Mahler have really cornered the market here), and for me Carmina Burana does not overcome that difficulty. There are some awesome colors, there are some sweet and tender moments, and there are some balls-out-kick-your-fucking-ass moments, but there are some severely long stretches where the music feels trapped in a self-imposed stasis. But I’m the asshole here, because the sheer volume of recordings and performances clearly prove that Carmina will be here long after I’m dead and will likely have a similar impact on future generations of listeners. Wheel of Fortune indeed.

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