Cleveland Orchestra closes residency with Orff, Bernstein

Arts / Article

Nadine Sierra. Photo by Dario Acosta

The Cleveland Orchestra brings its Miami residency to a close beginning tonight and ending Saturday night with three performances of a 1937 blockbuster, German composer Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

In its own proto-minimalist way, this setting of medieval Goliard lyrics drawn from a collection in a monastery has been as influential as milestones such as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The opening segment, “O Fortuna,” with its chugging D minor orchestral engine and its chorus barking out syllables in a way that sounds menacing, ominous and unforgettable, is one of the world’s best-known earworms. It’s been used as the backdrop in any number of advertisements when the purveyor wants to suggest darkness and power.

It’s hard to imagine today’s video game music without Orff’s example, and indeed John Williams’s Star Wars and Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings scores have echoes of this music in them at times when the forces of evil are riding high. But more than that, the stripped-down harmonic language of much of Carmina Burana, and the big, catchy tunes of its choruses, suggest nothing less than rock on the one hand, and classical minimalism on the other.

It remains the only work of Orff’s that is regularly done, except for elementary schools that use his educational curriculum (the Orff Schulwerk), which teaches children the rudiments of music, performance and ensemble (here’s a look at that).

A word should also be said about Orff himself, who lived until 1982 and has a decidedly murky record in connection with his World War II activities. He accommodated himself to the Hitler regime, despite its suspicion of him and his long association with Jewish artists including Kurt Weill, and he escaped the Allies’ post-war blacklist only through the intervention of an American friend. He wrote an alternative score to A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace the well-known one by the Jewish Mendelssohn — an odious thing to do — and he claimed after the war to have been involved in the anti-Hitler White Rose movement, which he was not.

Nonetheless, Orff made a substantial contribution to music with his pedagogy, and Carmina Burana will likely always be good box office. Briefly, it’s a setting of 24 song lyrics from the 11th through the 13th centuries, collected in a Benedictine monastery in Bavaria. The poems and songs are anonymous, but were likely written in the Bavarian region by Goliards, church-skeptic scholars who wandered through Europe at that freewheeling time when the forms of higher education were beginning to take shape.

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. Photo by Roger Mastroianni

For the performances, resident conductor Giancarlo Guerrero will be leading the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, the Miami Children’s Chorus, and three fine young soloists: soprano Nadine Sierra, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and baritone Stephen Powell. Sierra is well-known to local audiences, having grown up in Fort Lauderdale and Delray Beach, and where she was a student at the Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. She and Costanzo starred opposite each other as the leads in the Palm Beach Opera production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 2011.

Also on the program is one of Leonard Bernstein’s best-loved later works, his Chichester Psalms, written in 1965 for a choral festival at Chichester Cathedral in England. The three movements are drawn from the Hebrew texts of the Psalms and remain along with the Kaddish Symphony one of Bernstein’s most heartfelt expressions of his Jewish identity. It’s a challenging but beautiful piece, and it’s no accident that it was written while Bernstein was on sabbatical from his post as music director of the New York Philharmonic. It remains a tantalizing question: Would Bernstein have composed more had he cut back on his conducting career?

The Cleveland Orchestra earlier this month released its programs for next season’s residency, which will be its 10th at the Knight Concert Hall. It will feature some major stars: soprano Renée Fleming (Jan. 23, 2016), pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (March 17-19, 2016) in the Liszt Second Concerto, cellist Johannes Moser in the Shostakovich First Concerto (Nov. 13-14, 2015) and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes in the Schumann Piano Concerto (Jan. 21-22, 2016).

Also, orchestra members William Preucil and Mark Kosower will be the violin and cello soloists in the Brahms Double Concerto (Jan. 29-30, 2016), and the March 17-19 Thibaudet concerts also will include the world premiere of a piece by the Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman, being written to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Cleveland Orchestra’s collaboration with the Adrienne Arsht Center.

The Cleveland Orchestra performs March 26-28 at the Knight Concert Hall in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. All performances are at 8 p.m. Call 305-949-6722 for tickets, or visit clevelandorchestramiami.com. There are two prelude concerts at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday featuring chamber music, with two world premieres by David Mendoza and Shawn Crouch, plus a rarely heard septet by the the 19th-century French composer Adolphe Blanc.