March 22, 2014 (Review of "Carmina Burana")
Symphony Silicon Valley's ovation-inspiring 'Carmina Burana'
Richard Scheinin, Mercury News
The quandary: where to begin this description of Saturday's electric program by Symphony Silicon Valley. Perhaps with the soulful spectacle of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, performed by more than 200 musicians (orchestra members, choristers, solo singers) and led by Argentinian guest conductor Carlos Vieu -- an hour-long eruption that elicited the loudest ovation this reviewer ever has heard at the California Theatre.
Or maybe with the U.S. premiere of JP Jofre's superb Bandoneon Concerto, titled Tango Movements. Sweepingly romantic, elegantly crafted and rhythmically charged, it is a showcase for the bandoneon -- which resembles an accordion and is related to the harmonium, or pump organ -- and for Jofre himself, the soloist. He is an explosively talented performer and composer, who also happens to come from Argentina.
Well, let's stick with Jofre, who wears white designer eyeglasses and looks like a hipster aviator. But there is nothing gimmicky about his musicianship.
Playing his bandoneon -- when its bellows are fully extended, the instrument spans a good five feet -- he seemed to be handling a large lizard, often folding it across his knee. This was visually fascinating, yes, but then there were the sounds he coaxed from this highly expressive instrument: arias in its soprano range and grave utterances in the bass; melismatic chants and train-like roars; plus, plaintive sighs, calling to mind Miles Davis's trumpet.
Jofre has loaded the piece with virtuoso cadenzas, solo statements. Even more striking is the way he expands his scoring outward from the instrument, extending and embellishing the bandoneon's themes through the orchestra with painterly strokes, and then allowing the themes to retract and return to their point of origin, the bandoneon. It's as if the score reflects the in-and-out bellows motion of the solo instrument.
One hopes that Jofre (and other bandoneonistas) will have the opportunity to take this piece on the road. Its opening Allegro Marcato moved with the rhythmic thrust -- the sharp, aggressive attack -- of a nuevo tango dance, complementing the soloist's lines with dabs of clarinet or muted brass and with the march-like pulse of double basses. It passed through multiple moods, sometimes opening into spacious harmonies, hanging there like orchids, reminiscent of Gil Evans's arrangements on Davis's Sketches of Spain.
The Adagio is über-Romantic -- part Tchaikovsky, part Hollywood, part Astor Piazzolla (who played the bandoneon) -- and includes a slow-turning cadenza that evokes the bandoneon's origins as a church instrument in Germany and Italy. The concluding Milonga, close to Cuba and Africa with its ostinato-driven syncopations, passed like a flash, with clear, forceful contributions from strings and brass.
Jofre, 30, has been working on the piece for more than a decade, gradually refining the orchestration. He has previously performed it three times in Argentina (always with Vieu conducting) and has reached a point of balance and concision. Bravo. He followed the concerto with a solo encore, a lullaby composed for his niece, titled Sweet Dreams.
Following intermission came Carmina Burana, Orff's audacious response, composed in the mid-1930s, to a 13th century manuscript (discovered in a Bavarian monastery) containing poems and songs about springtime (Part I of Carmina), the life of the tavern (Part II) and the joys of love and lust (Part III).
With banks of choristers from the Symphony Silicon Valley Chorale (prepared by Lou De La Rosa) and the Cantabile Youth Singers (directed by Elena Sharkova) rising to the stage's furthest reaches, Vieu conducted without a score. He mouthed just about every word of Latin and Middle High German for his singers, inciting an exciting, wheels-turning performance.
We've all probably heard Carmina Burana many times, maybe sometimes feeling it's been too many times. This performance, while by no means letter perfect, returned the piece to its full impact: the riot of modes and melody (O Fortuna!), the folk-driven dances, the dazzling Stravinsky-esque orchestrations.
And the momentum: Saturday's performance (the program was scheduled to repeat Sunday) grew ever more vivid and earthy. It included exceptional work by the brass (including impossibly tip-toeing tuba by principal Tony Clements in a moonlit sequence of Part I) and flutes (especially principal Maria Tamburrino, lush-sounding throughout). But its generosity and strength ultimately came from the buy-in of the 200-plus performers, from the three keyboardists and half dozen percussionists to the fresh-voiced Cantabile singers and spirited Chorale.
The three soloists stole the show, especially baritone Ralph Cato, charismatic and warmly round-voiced -- and, during the concluding love song, handing a red rose to soprano Christina Major. She rose to scarifying heights, right on pitch, in those final moments. In an earlier tavern song, tenor J. Raymond Meyers nailed his murderous solo, meant to emulate the screeching death-song of a swan being roasted to feed Orff's imaginary revelers.