The Nashville Symphony Orchestra is going out on a loud, fortuitous and delightfully bawdy note. For its final concert of the 2011-12 season, the NSO and its music director Giancarlo Guerrero are presenting Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, surely the most exuberant and lusty spectacle in the entire choral repertoire.
This weekend’s program at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center features an outstanding roster of vocal soloists, whose voices augment both the mighty Nashville Symphony Chorus and the angelic Blair Children’s Chorus. Thursday’s opening night concert was remarkable both for its sense of high drama and good humor.
Orff based his scenic cantata on Johann Andreas Schmeller’s 1847 publication Carmina Burana, a collection of colorful and satirical 13th-century Latin and German lyrics. These poems are like the Germanic version of the Canterbury Tales. They comment on the fickleness of fortune and the perils of drinking, gluttony and lust, especially as practiced by the medieval clergy. The funniest poem, “Olim lacus colueram” (“Once I Swam Upon the Lake”), gives new meaning to the term “swan song.” It’s written from the perspective of a swan that’s being roasted on a spit.
Guerrero got Carmina Burana exactly right, leading a performance that was equal parts tender and suggestive. The orchestra playing was clean and characterful, the singing wonderfully lustful. The Bavarian beerhall number was appropriately raucous and fun.
All of the vocal soloists were strong. Soprano Terri Richter deserves the highest praise for her incredible rendition of “Dulcissime” – I could imagine her high D shattering champagne glasses. Her luminous account of “Stetit puella” was unfailingly sensitive. Tenor Christopher Pfund more or less stole the show with his comic lament for the roasting swan. Baritone Stephen Powell, whose burnished voice was wonderfully flexible and expressive, got laughs of his own with his impersonation of a tipsy abbot.
The Nashville Symphony Chorus, which was prepared by its interim director Douglas Rose, sang with a beautifully blended sound, though at times its performance seemed to lack adequate thrust and power. The wonderful Blair Children’s Chorus, under the splendid direction of Hazel Somerville, performed with purity and emotion.
Thursday’s concert opened with another choral work, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. Composed in 1938, this intensely lyrical piece sets to music words from the final act of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Guerrero led the orchestra at a leisurely pace that highlighted the sensuousness and resonance of the score. Once again, the chorus needed more volume in places, but it was never at a loss for the right feeling.
This weekend’s program includes one contemporary American piece – Lowell Liebermann’s Symphony No. 3. Liebermann says two catastrophic events were on his mind when he composed this piece in the spring of 2010 – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Nashville flood. Interestingly, this weekend’s performances are the first for this work in Music City. The piece was premiered by the Virginia Symphony.
Liebermann points to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 4 as an influence on his Third Symphony. That stands to reason. Like Sibelius, Liebermann has also written a piece that is often bleak, spare and mysterious. But Liebermann’s piece goes beyond Sibelius insofar as his Third Symphony is also kind of weird. Sections of understated urgency in the strings are often followed by jazzy non sequiturs. The effect is to create an atmosphere that sometimes feels surreal.
The NSO, for its part, gave a rendition that was thoughtful and lyrical. The work’s various episodes flowed effortlessly one to the next. Every note was polished and precise. For all of its strangeness, the piece at its best did seem like an emotionally moving response to the dual catastrophes. The NSO deserves credit for introducing it to Nashville.
The Nashville Symphony Orchestra performs Orff’s Carmina Burana, Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music and Liebermann’s Symphony No. 3. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, June 1 and Saturday, June 2 at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Place. Tickets are $39 to $109. Call 687-6400.