smART Magazine | The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s “Carmina Burana”

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s “Carmina Burana”

smART Magazine
Stephen Low
October 26, 2023

Carmina Burana is a sonic spectacle. Carl Orff, the composer of the 1937 masterpiece Carmina Burana, would be pleased with this descriptive, as he originally intended it to be a piece of music theatre ─ with sets and costumes, dancing, and staged action ─ that was a sight to behold as much as an experience to be heard. Even as a concert experience sans theatrical embellishments, Carmina Burana ─ performed by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (TMC), the Toronto Mendelssohn’s Children’s Choir, three soloists, and a full orchestra comprised of members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra — is overwhelming.

Carmina was preceded by two other works on the program: “Patah Tumbuh” (“Broken-Renewed”), a new commission by Tracy Wong, was, according to the program, the first piece of Malay compositions to be performed at Roy Thomson Hall. This inaugural appearance was a counterpoint to the epic scale of Carmina. The TMC, joined by the Toronto Children’s Chorus and a single bongo drum, skillfully performed the gamelan-inspired short choral song, merging Western choral techniques with Southeast Asian musical influence and inspiration.

As a surprise treat, the Children’s Choir performed an additional new work by Wong, Rasa Nusantara, a medley of four Malay songs. The minimal choreography that accompanied the piece complemented the music, rather than, as can be the case with choreography incorporated in choir concerts, a source of distraction.

The second piece before Carmina, Brahms’s Schicksalslied, managed to contrast both “Patah Tumbuh” and Orff’s epic, with its more meditative and balanced score. Though both Carmina and Schicksalsied explore the concept of fate, Brahm’s work evokes the metaphor of the waves of the sea to explore themes of human destiny. The musical sonorities of the rhythmic rise and fall of the waves, stormy swells, and a calm ocean were evocatively captured by the choir and accompanying orchestra.

After a short intermission, Carmina set the tone with striking, ominous chords, which John Williams notably borrowed for “The Duel of the Fate” featured in the climax of the first of the Star Wars prequels. The choir was adequately balanced, able to create the dynamic contrast between the rapturous opening to the crisp and hush simmering of the mid-section of “O Fortuna”. Though the choir met the impressive demands of this opening ─ under the direction of conductor Jean-Sébastien Vallée ─ they were not equally as tight, balanced, and synchronized throughout the rest of the 25-song cycle.

The orchestra supported the featured choirs and soloists well. Of note is the percussion section. Carmina Burana involves musicians playing the timpani, bass drum, snare drum, and fifteen other various instruments. The team of musicians were able to meet these demands, adding the musical drama that percussion is uniquely able to punctuate, while not distracting from their role in being one part of the orchestra ensemble who is responsible for accompanying the vocalists.

Vallée describes Carmina as akin to a “trip to Las Vegas, full of musical showmanship and glamour, sexual innuendo, and bursting with drinking songs and lyrics about games of chance.” In contrast to Vallée’s accurate description of Orff’s epic, the work is far from the superficial experience of vacationing in Vegas. In fact, Carmina, along with “Patah-Tumbuh” and Schicksalslied, speak profoundly of the power of fate to oppress and soothe, to break and to renew, and be the cause of tumult and of calm.

Read the full review on smART Magazine.