Unlikely Pairing Of Orff And Korngold Hits The Spot In TSO Revival

Joseph So, ludwig van Toronto

Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Carmina Burana, Donald Runnicles (conductor), James Ehnes (violin), Nicole Haslett (soprano), Sunnyboy Dladla (tenor), Norman Garrett (baritone), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Youth Choir, Toronto Children’s Chorus at Roy Thomson Hall, June 19 to 23.

A counterculture piece of drinking, free love and wild hedonism, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1936) was a staple of symphonic programming throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, gaining currency at the height of the Hippie movement. The Latin text, published in 1847, is based on original 13th-century manuscripts discovered in a Benedictine monastery near Munich, Germany. There’s nothing sacred about these poems — it’s as secular as it gets, all about drinking and fornication and unbridled merriment.  It shows in no uncertain terms that these medieval monks knew how to enjoy themselves — at least the defrocked ones!

I admit I’m a fan of this piece, perhaps because of vivid memories of its counterculture flavour dating to the ‘60s.  It’s also unique musically, and when it’s well done, it’s a wonderful evening at the symphony. It was superb two years ago at the TSO, with Aline Kutan, Daniel Taylor and Phillip Addis. Now, we have Scottish maestro Donald Runnicles returning to lead the TSO forces. An old hand in Orff, Runnicles has made a fine recording of this piece with the Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label in 2002. The fine trio of soloists on this occasion is soprano Nicole Haslett, tenor Sunnyboy Dladla, and baritone Norman Garrett, joined by the Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Youth Choir, and the Toronto Children’s Chorus.

From the downbeat of “O Fortuna” onwards, it was a sonic journey of extraordinary impact. Sometimes this piece can come across as a tad bombastic, but under Runnicles’s baton, it was plenty loud but never overdone. There were moments of subtlety, underscoring the inherent lyricism of the work. But at the climaxes, it was thrilling, thanks to the inspired playing by the TSO, notably the brass and the woodwinds.

And what can I say about the three choirs, except that they are the best. It was headed by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, surely a national treasure. The torrents of sounds were thrilling, full-bodied, incisive, rhythmically precise, exactly the way it should sound. The ending, a recap of the opening “O Fortuna,” was exhilarating, bringing the audience to its feet.

Read the full review here.