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Review: Fruhbeck leads an explosive 'Carmina Burana' at the Bowl

Conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos keeps the musicians and singers at the Hollywood Bowl on their toes with Carl Orff's dramatic 'Carmina Burana.'

August 29, 2012|By Richard S. Ginell
  • A 2010 photo of Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl.
A 2010 photo of Spanish conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting… (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles…)

When Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, who turns 79 in September, comes to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he brings qualities that one used to associate with departed veteran maestros of the past — a searching depth, revelation of detail without losing the forest for the trees, a sense of how to zero in upon and shape a climax. Yes, even at the Hollywood Bowl — with its extra-musical distractions, variable amplified sound and short rehearsal time — Frühbeck delivers the goods, and the appreciative Philharmonic keeps inviting him back.

Carl Orff’s explosive, bawdy, choral spectacular “Carmina Burana” was the big draw Tuesday night (and will be repeated Thursday). Before “Carmina,” with some of Orff’s vocal forces at his disposal, Frühbeck programmed nearly a half-hour of Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Interestingly, Orff also wrote incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but it is now mostly locked up in libraries, probably because of its association with the Third Reich as a substitute for Mendelssohn’s score, which was banned. And, I suspect, it isn’t nearly as good as Mendelssohn’s — or for that matter, “Carmina Burana.”

In a rather unusual move, Frühbeck skipped the Overture, the section that Mendelssohn wrote as a teenager, and concentrated upon the later music, starting with a deliberately-paced Scherzo that allowed us to hear its inner workings. The rest had a deep, sometimes floating, sometimes weighty, lived-in quality — old school music-making in the best sense. “Ye Spotted Snakes,” with soprano Laura Claycomb and a female delegation from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, was especially lovely.

With “Carmina Burana,” we were dealing with one of the experts in this game; in 1965, when he was the same age as Gustavo Dudamel (31), Frühbeck made an LP recording of “Carmina” that is still considered a reference disc today (it’s still available on CD). Who knows how many times he’s done this piece since, but it remains a fresh, fluid organism for him.

Conducting mostly seated, rising to his feet to make selected emphatic points, Frühbeck kept the musicians and singers on their toes with a lot of idiosyncratic tempo decisions, some of them daringly slow. You never were quite sure of what he would do next, and he also brought out the humor in the wind writing in Part II and lyrical sensuousness that others miss. All the while, though, Frühbeck was organizing his resources to finish each of the three parts with a terrific wallop.

Claycomb sounded gorgeous again in Part III, baritone Hugh Russell threw himself into his part with appropriately simulated drunken abandon while tenor Nicholas Phan was almost out of control. The Master Chorale and Los Angeles Children’s Chorus stayed with every abrupt gear shift, no easy task.

The 7,165 folks on hand went wild at the end, which you would normally expect for “Carmina,” given its crowd-pleasing blunt force and ubiquitous presence in film and TV commercials. But this exceptional performance deserved the standing ovation.

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 Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos; Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood; 8 p.m. Thursday; $1-$133; (323) 850-2000 or www.laphil.com

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