Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Symphony blasts Orff (that’s a good thing)

“Carmina Burana” has blown many a mind over the years.
“Carmina Burana” has blown many a mind over the years.

Some one-course dinners are complete meals, musically speaking: Gustav Mahler’s 75-minute Fifth Symphony, which the Charlotte Symphony played so well in November, leaves us full of ideas in a world of new sounds.

“Carmina Burana”? Not so much. It’s an hour-long tapas plate of lust, gambling, drunkenness, young love, meditations on fate and the most famous three minutes of choral music from the 20th century, “O Fortuna.” (Composer Carl Orff liked that bit so much that he began and ended with it.) But it leaves you hungry for more, especially after the Charlotte Symphony and its chorus have rocked Belk Theater so forcefully.

The symphony dimmed the lights Thursday, so patrons could not read program translations of medieval poems – some in Latin, some in Middle High German, one partly in old French – that Orff selected in 1935 and ’36. No chorus in the world can be understood when Orff thunders, even if we knew these languages, so it helps to follow along.

Luckily, the three expressive singers chosen by music director Christopher Warren-Green assisted us by their portrayals of nameless characters. Baritone Javier Arrey embodied the louche abbot and the raging tavern-goer, singing vividly. Soprano Klara Ek floated shimmering high notes as a maiden alternating “between erotic love and chastity.” Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo made an amusing entrance as the roasting swan, contemplating his own demise by wringing a huge white handkerchief.

Orff sets traps for sensation-seeking conductors, and Warren-Green avoided them. He didn’t press too hard, but he whipped up passion when appropriate, and the winds, brass and percussion shone.

Yet this piece relies mostly on the adult chorus (prepared by Kenney Potter) and, occasionally, a children’s chorus. (Heather Potter, his wife, brought over the Charlotte Children’s Chorus.) They followed Warren-Green exactly, even in the rapid tempos of “In Taberna,” where tongue-twisting Latin undoes the unready.

Their diction especially impressed me in the slowest moments. If the symphony would turn the lights up at the last two performances, everyone would know what was enunciated so carefully.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Carmina Burana

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

Tickets: $25.50-$89.50.

Details: 704-972-2000 or charlottesymphony.org.

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