Arts & Events

Carl Orff’s Infectious CARMINA BURANA at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday June 07, 2019 - 05:15:00 PM

Anyone who turns up the nose disapprovingly at Carl Orff’s Carmina burana is someone I’d not wish to associate with. The music may rely on basic means – pulsating rhythms and extended ostinatos. But the music is infectious. It grabs you and won’t let go. Moreover, the words, sung in Latin and Middle High German, offer a lusty affirmation of life and love, tempered with the knowledge that the capricious wheel of fortune can always turn against us. 

Carl Orff (1895-1982) based his Carmina burana on medieval illuminated manuscripts of poems from the Benediktbeuern monastery in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps south of Munich. Setting these poems to music in 1935-8, Carl Orff strove to achieve a primitive musical style using basic rhythms, repetitious ostinatos, and a direct vocal expression of emotion. With Carmina burana, which premiered in 1937 in Frankfurt, Carl Orff had instant success. And the popularity of Carmina burana has never waned.  

On Tuesday, June 4, San Francisco Symphony was joined by the Symphony Chorus and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus, plus soloists, all under the direction of the Symphony’s Resident Conductor, German-born Christian Reif. This was a one night only performance, but judging by the sold-out Davies Hall and the wildly enthusiastic audience, San Francisco Symphony missed the ball in not scheduling multiple performances of this highly popular work. Soloists for Carmina burana were baritone Hadleigh Adams, tenor Nicholas Phan, and soprano Nikki Einfeld. All were excellent, perhaps especially Hadleigh Adams, whose robust baritone rang forth with great command and fine Latin and German diction. Adams also negotiated beautifully the vocal shift into falsetto in Dies, nox et omnia/Day, night and all the world. Moreover, Hadleigh Adams initiated some comical horseplay when, to begin the inebriated soliloquoy of the Abbot of Cucany, he jumped up onto the podium and intruded on conductor Christian Reif’s space. 

Tenor Nicholas Phan made the most of his sole number, the over-the-top lament of the roasted swan, which number Phan sang in high falsetto from the mezzanine box at far left above the stage. Soprano Nikki Einfeld sang with feeling the In trutina/In the scales dilemma of carnal love versus chastity; and she gave a heartfelt answer to this dilemma with the ecstatic capitulation to love in Dulcissimo/Sweetest boy.  

In many ways, however, the real star of this Carmina burana might be the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Assistant Director David Xiques. Their singing in the opening and closing O fortuna numbers set the tone, a rollicking rhythmic propulsion, for Carmina burana. The male chorus members sang uproariously in the boisterous drinking songs of In taberna quando summus/ When we are in the tavern. Nor should we neglect the contributions of Ragazzi Boys Chorus led by director Joyce Keil and associate artistic director Kent L. Jue. Finally, the orchestra itself deserves praise for a standout performance throughout, from the pizzicato strings in O fortuna to the imitation birdcalls that open Primo Vere/Springtime, and including the flautist’s striking up the village dance band in Uf dem Anger/On the Green. Conductor Christian Reif led a robust, vivid account of this exuberant score that is Carl Orff’s Carmina burana. What a pity there weren’t more performances scheduled of this enormously popular work!