Reviews ...

Polymnia's Conductor Stuns Audience with "Carmina Burina"

... a tough work to tackle holds audience spellbound

by Jackie Wattenberg

Polymnia Choral Society conductor James E. Reyes brought off a brilliant performance of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" that held the large audience absolutely spellbound Saturday evening in Memorial Hall.

This is a work tough to tackle - difficult music for singers, a need for great percussion, wickedly vicious lines for soloists into the extremes of their ranges, and almost unrelieved in its declamatory, stentorian emphases. Polymnia accompanist Terry Halca was joined by North Shore's choral conductor Paul Madore at a second piano, generating compelling power and intensity. Too bad Reyes couldn't have had a full orchestra, but along with the peanists were five percussion players who ignited the stage with mesmerizing effects.

Sung in "debased" Latin and a variant of Middle High German, the texts are daringly cynical, irreligious, aburst with the joys of life and love and the glory of nature, daring indeed, for according to Maestro Reyes' notes, they were the creations of "Goliards," scholars, as well as monks and priests who had abandoned their vows for lives of thieving and sensual pleasures in medieval times.

Orff, a German composer who died in 1982, composed often for dramatic works, staging them when he could, including "Carmina Burana," his best-known work. He has placed the early secular poems in music that throbs with simple but strong short melodies in regular beats, accented with repetition and staccato segments, rarely a melody you will be humming on your way home. But the driven, audacious harmonies and dynamics and rhythms defy you to miss a note.

A fantastic baritone, Donald Wilkinson, projected frenzy and stress with amazing leaps beyond a baritone range, then cavorting in circles of notes to the depth of his register - often without support from accompaniment. His dark tones are flexible and his emotions made every expressive line intensely dramatic. He even soared to high B in falsettos that delighted listeners to admiring grins.

Counter tenor Murray Kidd also had incredible lines and range to put over, which he did with with eyeblinking bravura. Soprano Trudy Hill enjoyed some fairly lyrical sections, only to find herself in a torment of leaping and dipping and reaching up to extremely high notes - finally high D - all of which she did with apparent ease and beauty of tone, sometimes sweetly sung, sometimes frantic as demanded.

All of this difficult music and variety of song, along with percussion, were masterfully controlled by Reyes. The repetitive themes and steady pulsing beat might have proved overbearing, but he didn't miss an accent, a pause, a softening or crescendo, and never let up the energy Orff insists on.

The chorus, with a half dozen singers added from Madora's chorus and the Nashobi Valley Chorus, were in great form, sharp in entries and cutoffs, fervent and responsive to the constant rhythmic beat and frequent sforzandos.

Essential to the rhythmic drama of the Orff work, was the marvelous percussion playing of Jeff Fischer, John Grimes, Bill Manly, Haynes Morrison, and Gary Wallen. Grimes turned acrobatics to explode the dramatic rhythms of the score. How great it would be if Reyes could repeat this superb performance with a good segment of our Melrose Symphony, as the composer intended. Reyes and his Polymnia brought Melrose's musical season to a stunning climax.

The opening portion of the program featured Youth Pro Musica, the Greater Boston Youth Chorus, about 20 singers from age nine through seniors in high school, who sang Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert in different groupings, but always with the pure clsrity of tone only issuing from children. There was no compromising here for quality - only the finest music for them to learn and learn from. Their director, Hazel Somerville, has trained them well. Some of them also sang with Polymnia in the Orff work.

June 15, 2000

Previously published in the Melrose Free Press. Reprinted here with the permission of the Melrose Free Press.



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