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Music Review : Jarvi Conducts an Orff Night at the Bowl

August 27, 1994|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Once upon a time, too many years ago, an innocent college sophomore in Providence, R.I., was given a recording of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana."

Wow. The earth moved.

The impact in the dorm was terrific. Here, thought the wise fool and his friends, was a masterpiece for the ages.

The tone was modern yet ancient. The source was sort-of-sacred yet profane. The score, created in the shadows of 1935, zonked the listener point blank as it veered from the mystical to the spiritual to the bawdy and back again.

And again.

Orff, a canny survivor of the Nazi aesthetic, had given the world a gutsy memento of antique lust. In his cantata, he adorned 13th-Century poems from the archive of a Bavarian monastery with expressive accents that emerged grand and elegant one moment, folky and even jazzy the next. The chugging rhythmic structures taxed no ears that had ever heard Stravinsky, and the lyrical indulgences worried only those with a low tolerance for sonic saccharine.

This, we thought, was what modern music should be. Bold. Sexy. Immediate. Sexy. Tuneful. Arty. Sexy. It was all so easy.

It was all too easy.

The charm, for at least one convert, didn't last long. With repeated hearings--and there were many--the intellectual primitivism began to seem a bit feebleminded. The starkness turned to emptiness. The beat-beat-beat of the percussion conjured goose-steps. The sentiment suggested comic-book kitsch.

Eventually, "Carmina Burana" struck the struggling music major as modern music for people who really don't like modern music. But the stomp-along cantata wouldn't go away. In fact, it prevailed to join the short list of Great Hits of the 20th Century.

When the sophomore became a junior, he had had enough. He decided to avoid the grunt-pound-and-bob orgy wherever possible. He turned Orff off.

Then, along came Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and the movement of the Xeroxed arpeggio. Along came the stultifying trials of fashionable minimalism. Along came hammering repetition of the same simplistic ideas ad nauseam if not infinitum, always in the name of artistic resuscitation. Orff, by comparison, began to sound sophisticated, even complex.

And so it was Thursday night at Hollywood Bowl, where Neeme Jarvi and his Detroit Symphony joined three vocal soloists and local choral forces for a big and bold, fast but hardly furious performance of Orff's beloved, indomitable gut-thumper. In the cool light of 1994, the tiresome platitudes didn't seem quite so tired.

Everything, of course, is relative.

Jarvi stressed the obvious, devoting little time to any quest for delicacy. It seemed a reasonable approach, under the alfresco circumstances.

His orchestra, grossly amplified, sounded often rough and usually ready. The Los Angeles Master Chorale, which had mustered "Carmina Burana" on its own a couple of months ago under Paul Salamunovich, sang with its customary fusion of fervor and finesse. The Los Angeles Children's Chorus, trained by Rebecca Thompson, did what it had to do with pert security.

The solo trio, haunted by microphone echoes, was led by Canadian baritone Kevin McMillan, who delivered his wide-ranging odes to life, love and booze with point, passing pitch-problems notwithstanding. Lisa Saffer's virginal soprano coped ecstatically with the high-flying fioriture of defloration ("Dulcissime"). Tenor Craig Estep dared to roar like a lion in the plaints of the roasted cygnet, even though Orff was happy to settle for a weird falsetto in the stratospheric ascents.

Jarvi chose a far different, certainly less meretricious perspective of Germanic Medievalism for the first portion of the program, exulting in the bourgeois romanticism of Wagner's "Meistersinger." The Estonian maestro brought ample pomp if limited circumstance to 25 minutes of orchestral excerpts, including the prelude and Dance of the Apprentices. His players responded with eager generalities rather than elegant details.

Incidental intelligence:

* The skies, harboring only three mezzo-forte airplanes, were unusually friendly.

* The audience, officially tabulated at 11,370, included one unhappy, exceptionally healthy-voiced baby in the lower boxes--no doubt an incipient critic.

* The 50-cent program magazine offered inadequate annotations from Detroit, and neither texts nor translations.

* In response to the ovation that Orff built into the final cadence, Jarvi piled anticlimax upon climax and repeated a midsection chorus, "Were diu werlt alle min," as an unorthodox encore.

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