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Orchestra of St. Luke's: The Carmina Burana Choral Project

by Michael Cirigliano II

Orchestra of St Lukes; Carmina Burana, Carnegie Hall

Photo credit: Ozier Muhammad for The New York Times

After a stunning presentation of Bach and Messiaen back in December, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s returned to Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon for an adventurous presentation of Carl Orff’s choral masterwork, Carmina Burana. A venture between Carnegie’s Weill Music Institute and nine local choirs from all five NYC boroughs and Scarsdale, the performance featured nearly 400 young and energetic singers, most of whom were on the Carnegie stage for the first time. (Craig Jessop, from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, led a simillar program in 2007.) Also on the program were new orchestral works from three high-school-aged composers inspired by both the orchestration and text of Orff’s work.

At the helm was the magnificent David Robertson—music director of both the St. Louis Symphony and the BBC Symphony Orchestra—who handled the large forces with great ease. Often looking like a ballet dancer while on the podium, Robertson commanded precision from the orchestra and young choir with the simplest of gestures. In the Orff, Robertson swam through the 24 seemingly disparate movements of the piece with hardly any breaks, often moving through the movements themselves at breakneck speeds. Due to the repetitious nature of the work—most of each movement's material is repeated several times—Robertson’s speedy tempos made sure the energy of the piece never relented.

Baritone soloist David Adam Moore was a dramatic presence onstage, handling each of his solo moments with ease and depth of character, ranging from meditative prayer to a raucous screaming match with himself in the In taberna section. Lawrence Brownlee’s tenor solo was spot on, with a bright timbre calling to mind the manic doctor from Berg’s Wozzeck. Each of his top notes soared, accompanied by a brilliant blend of piccolo, clarinet, and trumpet.

Unfortunately, the soprano soloist, Celena Shafer, tried too hard to amplify the drama, overacting many of her moments in the second half of the piece. Her delicate delivery of “In trutina” was breathtaking, but her constant swaying and seemingly drunken smiles during the “Tempus es iocundum” was overplayed and distracting.

Adding to the program were incredibly designed visuals from video artist S. Katy Tucker. Plunging the stage and hall into darkness, Tucker’s presentation was designed to precisely fit the specifics of Stern Auditorium’s back wall. Ranging from surrealist eyeballs that hovered over the chorus to bright splashes of Fauvist color, the visuals amplified Orff’s noted desire that Carmina Burana be a presentation of “total theater for the senses."