For the past 30 years this listener’s gold standard for choral sound has been the Tanglewood Festival Chorus in full cry at Symphony Hall. On Sunday, June 6, a rival assemblage appeared, producing a sound in Jordan Hall that was as high-decibeled and as hair-raising as the TFC. The Chorus Pro Musica, though also a group of mature singers, proved extremely adept at impersonating randy young monks and innocent maidens in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Whether because of financial exigencies or space on the Jordan Hall Stage, conductor Betsy Burleigh chose Orff’s own adaptation for five percussionists and two pianists — really seven percussionists*, considering the way the pianos were employed. The advantages in this approach over the orchestral version were immediately apparent. Ms. Burleigh had an uncanny ability to evoke both subtle and broad accelerandos and ritardandos with complete unanimity of ensemble in large part because percussionists have such highly developed sense of pulse, but also because there were no large, lumbering string sections to cajole into following her dramatic impulses, though one occasionally missed the big orchestral sound in the tuttis, perhaps because the lids were not removed from the pianos.
The chorus, as one would expect, was thoroughly drilled and all aboard to realize the interpretation of their new leader in the last concert of her inaugural year. The clarity of their enunciation was extraordinary for an ensemble of 41 women and 34 men. All of the sibilants and hard consonant lined up perfectly, however the tempi were stretched — and this crowd could really swing when Orff demanded.
The three excellent soloists were soprano Mary Wilson, tenor Rockland Osgood, and baritone Andrew Garland. That they all hit their money notes with consistency might have been enough, but what elevated their contribution was how each one dealt with the unrelenting high tessitura while maintaining emotional involvement and establishing dramatic personæ.
Rockland Osgood had to sit for nearly 45 minutes before beginning his three-minute Song of the Swan on a high A. He is a trooper in this gig and fearlessly went on to dispatch all of the high Cs and Ds with aplomb. Mary Wilson floated her glowing high D seemingly forever in Orff’s only affirming and consoling moments. And baritone Andrew Garland made an impressive impression as a singing-actor who fully inhabited his rôles. His instrument was seamless across two octaves from a stentorian growl to a falsetto-headvoice.
The ovation at the end featured the loudest and most sustained cheering that this reviewer has ever heard in staid classical environs. But he is unable to determine whether this was due to the fact that the audience may have been composed of family and friends of the 100-plus singers (including the well tuned and enthusiastic Youth Pro Musica) or because of the Leni Riefenstahl qualities inherent in any performance of Carmina Burana.
The concert opened with Dominick Argento’s I Hate and I Love from poetry of Catullus in English translation. This was a different kind of artistry from that of Orff. The post-Randall Thompson choral writing together with the shimmering percussion accompaniments made for a very evocative setting of some very old Latin poetry which still speaks to the universality of love and loss.
* Karen Harvey and Darryl Hollister, pianos; Richard Flanagan, John Grimes, Paul Pitts and Dennis Sullivan, percussion; Gary DiPerna, tympani