Bonnaroo 2013: Sunday
New York Philharmonic Plays Dukas, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky

Stonewall Chorale Brings Fiery "Carmina Burana" to Church of the Holy Apostles

by Michael Cirigliano II

Stonewall Chorale, Carmina Burana, Pride Concert

Marking the end of their 36th season, the Stonewall Chorale—the nation’s first LGBTQ chorus—presented an intense reading of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, using its alternate orchestration of duo pianists and percussion ensemble. Although an avocational group, the chorale has built a reputation for committed performances, with a particular focus on delivering new music and increasing audience engagement. And as evidenced by the enthusiastic sold-out crowd Saturday night at the Church of the Holy Apostles, it is clear that the chorus’ footprint in the LGBTQ community is incredibly strong.

Leading the 60-member choir was Artistic Director Cynthia Powell, who meticulously directed the proceedings while communicating a great sense of rhythmic clarity from the combined forces. Given the percussive vocal writing Orff dictates throughout the work, Powell’s choice of the piano/percussion accompaniment was wise, allowing the smaller chorus to project while never forcing their sound; the result was an articulate presentation of the wordy texts and a resonant, crystalline timbre.

Both the bombastic material and the meditative chants were given room to breathe, and despite Powell quickly moving between the 25 movements with an acute brevity, the pacing was never forced—each phrase was pleasantly released and allowed the church’s acoustics to add polish to each movement’s final moment.

The evening’s three soloists—soprano Lily Arbisser, tenor Aaron Sanko, and baritone Mark Rehnstrom—excelled in showcasing their characters’ interior motives: the soprano’s desire for companionship, the tenor’s morbid fear of death, and the baritone’s debaucherous antics all heightened the most entertaining sections of the piece. Sanko’s forceful heldentenor-style solo was confident and supported throughout (calling to mind the maniacal doctor of Berg’s Wozzeck), whereas Arbisser’s delicate tone effortlessly floated over the proceedings.

The only issue with the lack of orchestra came in the glorious “In trutina,” where Arbisser could have blended with a gentle bed of string sound instead of being laid bare by the percussive and decaying sounds of the piano. Otherwise, the Manhattan Percussion Ensemble and pianists Eric Sedgwick and Taisiya Pushkar were ferocious in their rhythmic precision and ability to replicate many of the missing orchestral timbres—from piercing piccolo in the xylophone to a gong’s deep evocation of a horn section.

Seeking to make the evening an extra-musical affair, the performance incorporated the work of five dancers and some bright costumes from the conductor, chorale, and soloists. While all of the additional elements made for a theatrical approach, they unfortunately proved distracting from the true focus of the evening, which was the choir’s ability.

Showing a strong sense of intonation, diction, and phrasing, the concert rivaled many of the evergreen presentations of the work taking place in larger and more iconic venues across the city, and with the program also serving as their annual Pride Month concert, the LGBTQ community should be quite pleased to have such an ensemble setting the standard for their musical peers.