A Thousand Joys - Carmina Burana

Kingston Symphony Orchestra
Sat. November 25, 8PM
Sunday November 26, 2:30 PM
Reviewed by Mary Cameron

O luck,
like the moon
changeable in state,
you are always waxing
or waning;
hateful life
is one moment hard
and the next moment watches over
the mind’s acumen in gambling;
it melts like ice.*

The first chorus of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana - Fortuna, Imperatrix Mundi (Fortune, Empress of the World) - is meant to and does strike some terror in the listener, with its percussion and protesting, dissonant chords. It really does seem to be warning of our terrible fate. That said, the performance on Saturday night of this powerful masterwork here in our own backyard, was inspiring, humbling, and a great sharp pleasure indeed. I felt very lucky to attend. Guided to our parking spot by baton-waving attendants, cars placed as neatly as if on a ferry bound through the night, my partner and I entered the Kingston Gospel Temple and took our seats on the soft blue curving pews.

The evening began with the Aaron Copland’s Rodeo—Four Dances, which was immediately recognizable with its horsehoofs and whip cracks, great bounce of cowboy brawn and bravado. There were comical exchanges between instruments, rhythmic breaks and jauntiness. I could see horse and rider, a wagon struggling in a muddy bit, some grandma’s bonnet flying off into the grass. Every western film soundtrack and musical draws from Copland’s pieces: a shifting narrative of sunrises, solemn pride in the great wide land, delicate dances between tentative girls and their nervous, wet-haired beaux. The last dance - Hoedown - is the quintessential galloping-across-the-prairie music, lariots swinging, the excitement of the new land, youth, skill, frontier America.

The orchestra reconfigured, and choirs filled the wide arcs of chairs behind the musicians. More than 200 voices, from the Kingston Choral Society, Queen’s Choral Ensemble and Cantabile Children’s Choir, and three soloists, soprano Elizabeth McDonald, tenor Benoit Boutet, and bariton Bruce Kelly, appeared before the expectant audience. The massive opening chorus began, and suddenly the most pleasurable of concert experiences occurred - the sensation of being swept up into the music, swept away, at times even threatening to be swept under.

The huge choir sang with great articulation and control, sometimes in short bursts of words or syllables, shouts, or strong last high notes flung beautifully, in folk songs, chants, and the most lovely romantic songs. Choir and orchestra made a conversation as if between bells, struck low, then high, or with the brilliance of a crowd of townsfolk running, praising, in the streets. Bruce Kelly sang lustily and with great character, a bandit or blusterer, filling the hall. Benoit Boutet made amusing turns at the top of a flight of stairs, even collapsing against the balcony railing while still singing eerily high. Elizabeth McDonald, with gorgeous control and agility, sang as the orchestra roiled and rumbled. Whoops of approval and glee from someone in the audience were like long-delayed echoes from a Copland cowboy.

Then the capitulation of the soprano solo, above the sad woodwinds, and long beautifully held notes, and at last, her high leaps and feints, part scales and dance, before the final chorus came boiling in once more.

Conductor Glen Fast swept percussion in with his left arm like the drawing in of thunderous weather, and with baton in his right hand, drew the choir across the final chorus. Here the tsunami or apocalypse: the choir’s jagged chords with drums rolling low, triumphant, torn apart; the gong’s reverberating tones capturing Fate’s inevitable turn; final explosions of cracking drums, cymbals and gorgeous craziness as the performance came to an end.

In this hour
without delay
sweep the sounding strings;
and for that which, by lot,
overthrows the strong man,
weep with me, all of you!*

The moon hung in its graceful cracked arc as we pulled out of the parking lot toward home, the choir’s sea of faces still before us. An evening of extraordinary power and exhilaration to be grateful for.

Bio: Mary Cameron is a poet and amateur musician living in Kingston. Her book of poems, Clouds Without Heaven, was published in 1998. She will be reading from new work at a fundraiser for Kingston Literacy at the Kingston Public Library on December 6.

*Latin text translated by William Mann, 1965.



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