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The Sacred and the Not-Quite-Profane Enough

New York
Rose Theatre, Lincoln Centre
05/19/2008 -  
Carl Orff: Carmina Burana
Alessandro Cadario: Cantata for Revival (World Premiere)

Leslie Fagan (Soprano), Anna Jablonski (Mezzo-soprano), Mukund Marathe (Tenor), Elem Eley (Baritone)
Benjamin Herman (Timpani) Joseph Tomkins, Daniel Haskins, Thomas Mulvaney (Percussion), Nancianne Parella, Scott Warren (Pianos), Arthur Fiacco, Stephanie Cummins, Adam Grabois, Gregory Hesselink, Robert La Rue, Ted Mook, Deborah Sepe (Cellos), Musica Sacra Chorus, Kent Tritle (Conductor)

With 32 voices, Musica Sacra could be considered almost a chamber chorus, but in nearly 40 decades, they have made an indelible name in New York and abroad, for excellent reasons. Its proportions give the voices transparency if not always breadth. The founder, the late Richard Westenburg, trained them from church to concert hall, so they know their acoustics well. Their present conductor, Kent Tritle, also works with the larger New York Oratorio Society, so knows his spatial limitations.

Music Sacra are not limited to any particular century, and., in fact, have commissioned works from several eminent (if conservative) composers, including Ned Rorem, Alan Hovhannes and David Diamond. Their concert last night had one such premiere from the young Italian Alessandro Cadario, whose Cantata For Revival was partly dedicated to Mr. Westenburg. The words for the faith-in-Jesus choruses and solos well-qualified for the “sacra” of the musica.

Mr. Cadario certainly knows his choral writing well, most of it belonging to the Randall Thompson “Alleluja” school of comfortable voices. The one exception was the final section, where the chorus walked off the stage (shades of the “Farewell Symphony”!!) and gathered in agglomerations of four, all around the Rose Theatre (shades of Elliott Carter!!). Thus we, the audience were sucked into an antiphonal supplication hoping that the Lord would be our Light.

The real novelty was the orchestration: piano seven celli, marimba and a battery of percussion. The timbres were handled so beautifully, with different keyboards echoing the singers, giving resonance to the confessedly banal choral lines, that one would wish Mr. Cadario would write another cantata just for one or two voices and these forces.

Orff’s Carmina Burana today has the status of Zarathustra advertising motorcycles, prescription drugs and probably meatloaf. It is still a totally unique piece of music. And though one would prefer Orff’s huge orchestra, dancers and monstrous chorus, the 32 voices of Musica Sacra handled it as well as the soloists.

Nor should one have feared Orff’s orchestra being restricted to all percussion, as it was here. The battery here did a wonderful job. But Nancianne Parrella had to carry the whole non-percussive orchestra on her grand piano, and while she was exellent, piano is very wrong for Carmina it actually strains the demonic energy.

Why? . Carmina Burana must give the illusion of Middle Ages deviltry, Rabelaisian orgies and monastic mischief.. And the piano gives the reality of 19th Century salons and concert hall. The result is that the work is tamed into sweetness. We need drums, timpani (played incredibly by Benjamin Herman), and trumpets triple-tonguing Ave Formossissima as well as consorts of strings.. The piano says….”Oh, what a pretty little piece this is.”

Yet there were some magic moments. Leslie Fagan was as light as her emerald-green dress in her solo Stetit Pulella. Both men soloists were competent enough, and both sung terrific falsettos. The chorus was clear, light, energetic, under the dancing Mr. Tritle. But best was the male chorus singing In taberna quando sumus, an almost-exact variation of South Pacific’s “We got sunlight on the sand, we got moonlight on the sea, we got mangoes and bananas you can pick right off the tree… .”

Apologies for bringing in a Broadway musical. But Carmina itself is a musical of sorts, and at its best—which it frequently was here—it can be a background for Nuremberg Rally and a terrific toe-tapper as well.

Harry Rolnick



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