Seattle Symphony’s Magical ‘Carmina Burana’

Carl Orff’s magnum opus, the hour-long cantata Carmina Burana, wrought its inevitable magic on the audience at Benaroya Hall Thursday night. The auditorium was packed, and clearly thrilled by the performance.

But first, the Seattle Symphony played one of Haydn’s late works, his Symphony No. 100, the “Military,” so called because of the prominent use of percussion and brass, not common in 1794. This performance, with a reduced orchestra under associate conductor Stilian Kirov, could certainly be considered a call to arms, stirring, emphatic and eager, though keeping within the boundaries of that era’s elegance and refinement.

Carmina, on the other hand, is expansive and not at all refined. In this work of 25 sections, the Benaroya stage saw a huge adult choir (Seattle Symphony Chorale), boy choir (Northwest Boychoir), big orchestra including what seems like double everything in the percussion section, even two pianos, and three soloists: baritone Corey McKern, tenor Daniel Shirley and soprano Caitlin Lynch.

Musically, Carmina is the polar opposite of Haydn. Where Haydn develops themes and harmonies into sophisticated structures which draw you inward and onward, Orff uses simple melodies, simple rhythms, simple harmonies and an enormous amount of repetition to absorb and excite the audience in a totally different way, harking back to the effect of ritual ceremonies and dancing in primitive societies. He creates variety by the artful use of different instrumental colors, and using different parts of the chorus at different times, along with the soloists.

Carmina can be a very noisy affair, but while there were plenty of moments when chorus and orchestra were at full blast, Kirov made sure there was contrast with softer moments and between full energy and more flowing or slower parts. His conducting was clean, clear and crisp, but brought out the sensuality and general exuberance embodied in a work full of lust, love unattainable, suggested or achieved, drunken orgies, the rise of springtime in the blood and general hedonism.

Tenor Shirley had only a small part, but achieved it memorably, reeling on stage seemingly very drunk to sing, plaintively, the saga of a roasting swan, reeling off again without bumping any of the violinists on the way, while the orchestra added belch-like chords. McKern was equally expressive, particularly as a priest who was maudlin in his cups, sorry for himself, his voice low and trembling or rising to falsetto and full of throaty dramatics. Soprano Lynch did well in the purer role of girl in love or wanting to be.

The Chorale, excellently trained by Joseph Crnko, sang full throated or quietly but never sounded strained, while the Boychoir sang high and pure-toned. Words were usually audible and could be followed in the program.

The audience rose to its feet from the highest balconies to the front of the main floor and brought back conductor, choir director and soloists several times for vociferous applause.

The program is repeated Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Pictured above: Stilian Kirov by Yuen Lui Studio.