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. Tickets available at www.tso.ca.
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. Incidentally, there were two minor stage accidents — unexpected but nothing truly bad, if anything it brought on much hilarity, for those audience members paying attention, that is!
First off, we were startled that James Ehnes, the soloist in the Korngold violin concerto, suddenly exchanged violins with concertmaster Jonathan Crow in mid-performance. After five minutes they exchanged again. It turned out a string in Ehnes’s violin came loose, and Crow came to the rescue. It almost looked like an act, given that Crow played the Korngold concerto, beautifully I might add, a couple of seasons ago, deputizing for the no-show Vilde Frang. I adored Crow’s playing last time, and I would be hard pressed to pick a winner. To be sure, Ehnes was flawless as usual, with his trademark singing tone, ethereal when called for, not to mention a bravura technique that knocks your socks off.
The second stage accident occurred in the second half during Carmina Burana. In a moment of exuberance, Runnicles’s baton flew into the auditorium. An audience member picked it up and handed it to the baritone who passed it on to the conductor, who continued without missing a beat — as they say, expect the unexpected in a live performance.
The trio of soloists in Orff was terrific. The tenor has only one aria, “Cignus ustus cantat” in which a swan laments his fate as a roast on the dinner table. It’s a real challenge given its high tessitura – most (but not all) sing it in falsetto. Two years ago it was sung by a countertenor. Now we have South African Sunnyboy Dladla. His high register — in full voice, without any hint of strain — was nothing short of amazing. The baritone has a lot more music to sing, and it requires an unusual upward extension. American Norman Garrett was very good as well, especially in “Dies, nox, et omnia.”
Rounding out the trio was soprano Nicole Haslett, a voice unfamiliar to me. The soprano is used sparingly in this piece, but she has the wonderful “In truitina.” Haslett did not disappoint. Hers is a high lyric soprano with exemplary — even angelic in purity of tone, tailor-made for this work. Two years ago, Aline Kutan was tremendous. This time around, we are lucky to have an equally wonderful successor. 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.
Finally, I can’t resist a comment on the audience. When they started applauding after each movement of the Korngold in the first half, my heart sank. Honestly, I’m not being a snob by thinking it’s wrong to applaud between movements. It has nothing to do with etiquette and everything to do with letting the music speaks for itself without interruptions. Runnicles’s solution in the Carmina Burana in the second half was hardly any pauses at all from one movement to the next — problem solved.
Three more performances, and not-to-be-missed. Details, here.
Update: (June 22, 2019)
I just heard from a performer in the opening night Carmina Burana that there was a THIRD stage accident. The beloved, ever-energetic Maestro Donald Runnicles ripped his trousers during the first half of the performance, and at intermission he had to exchange pants with an orchestral musician, who shall remain nameless here. It wasn’t clear if the musician had an extra pair of concert pants with him, but I rather doubt it. In any case it was easier for him to hide the rip as a member of the orchestra and behind the instrument. As I wrote in my original review — expect the unexpected in a live performance.