Last night the Dallas Symphony Orchestra went out with a song and a bang. This weekend marks the final performance in the orchestra's 2012/2013 classical season and they chose a showy finale, maxing out the Meyerson's stage with the apocalyptic, hedonistic music of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.
Carmina Burana is a crowd pleaser, and an almost-packed house proved its ability to draw the masses. The orchestra still seems to be riding a high from a hugely successful European tour, and they took some time last night to thank a few big donors who helped along the way (there were Perots and McDermotts in the crowd to name a few). The whole concert had a celebratory feel, as if Jaap van Zweden was flexing his musical muscles one last time before the summer break.
There's more than one way to show off. Like a football player proving physical prowess by dancing in a ballet, Jaap van Zweden downsized the orchestra for a subtly beautiful performance of Mozart's G Major Violin Concerto in the concert's short first half. Co-concertmaster Nathan Olson was the soloist, standing in last minute for Alexander Kerr who was to have played the Barber Violin Concerto.
In a piece like the Mozart concerto, there's nowhere for an orchestra to hide mistakes. It's naked music. Every note, every phrase, every entrance has to be perfect. Last night the orchestra's Mozart was pretty near perfect, and Olson's violin solo was as good as any played by the big-name violinists who've graced that stage this year. The basic building blocks were all there - dynamic contrast and gorgeously shaped phrases that breathed when necessary. These supposedly "simple" elements are often overlooked, but when they are in place, the result is shimmering, moving music.
After the Mozart, the orchestra publicly thanked board member, donor and all around rich guy Gert-Jan Kramer for donating two ridiculously pricey and rare violins to the orchestra (including a 1692 Stradivarius -- yeah, that's a year -- played by Alexander Kerr). Nathan Olson showed off his new 1715 Guarnerius violin with an encore. He played Bach and the sound, technique and artistry he showed off during this solo were breathtaking.
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Apocalyptic drumbeats and blazing brass, quickly followed by the hushed, pulsing chants of a choir opened the second half of the evening. Carmina Burana is one of those even-if-you-don't-know-you-know-it, you-definitely-know-it pieces. Its famous first movement has been used in everything from commercials for shaving cream and political attack ads to background music in football stadiums and it has been sampled by Nas and Puff Daddy and covered by Ozzy Osbourne.
Even if it is a bit overdone, there's nothing like hearing the brute force of an enormous orchestra and choir bring Carmina Burana to life inside the massive cavern of the Meyerson Symphony Hall. The Latin text, which some say was written by excommunicated Catholic Monks, is an ode to the powers of lust, fate, love, sex and booze.
I wish the DSO had projected the English translation of the lyrics on a screen above the stage the way they did last week during their performance of Wagner's Die Walkürie. There's a tongue-in-cheek element to the music that gets lost if you're not following along in the booklet. For instance, there's an entire movement sung from the perspective of a roasting swan ("Now I lie on a plate, and cannot fly anymore, I see bared teeth: Misery me! Now black and roasting fiercely!"). If someone unfamiliar with the text watched tenor John Osborn's overly dramatic performance and took it seriously, it would lose its appeal.
Overall, the DSO's Carmina Burana was exactly what you want from the piece - dark humor and seductive entertainment presented with massive forces. An enormous orchestra, full choir and children's chorus and four soloists packed the stage. It's practically impossible to make all of that work together, just as its practically impossible for any soprano to hit the high notes required of this music, but the DSO pulled off a worthy effort and it is an hour of entertainment that is worth the price of admission.