in: Reviews

November 20, 2012

BU Symphony Orchestra and Chorus Celebrate


Baritone James Demler emotes (Michael J. Lutch photo)

Sixty years ago the great Leopold Stokowski led the Boston University Symphony and Symphonic Chorus in the East Coast United States premiere of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana before taking the work to Carnegie Hall in New York. On Monday night David Hoose brought the same forces to Symphony Hall along with the Boston Children’s Chorus in a celebratory performance of Orff’s most famous work. The stage was filled to overflowing onto an extension apron and beyond—the children were deployed at the front of the first balcony.

Symphony Hall was full with an enthusiastic crowd of the lowest average age I have ever seen there for an orchestral performance. Many of these were no doubt friends and parents of the members of the very large orchestra and chorus which BU had fielded. And what a grand exuberant sound those forces made! And how proud of themselves they seemed afterwards when they applauded their leader, David Hoose.

The familiar Carmina Burana, a dramatic cantata in five large scenes subdivided in twenty-four movements, never fails to whip up an audience. And the players on Monday night did not disappoint. Hoose did an excellent job indicating the many changes in dynamics and tempi—some gradual and some abrupt. For the most part the things lined up well, though at a few times chorus and orchestra did not shift gears simultaneously. The men of the chorus  impersonated lusty monks with a lively ease (and strong consonants), while the women expressed their more lyrical role with ravishing tones. Among the soloists, baritone James Demler inhabited his demanding and wide-ranging role with handsome and colorful tone as well as dramatic conviction. The Boston Children’s chorus did themselves proud, though we hope they didn’t read the translations of the lascivious text. The players in the very large orchestra gave their all, and did not seem to tire or falter through the demanding evening. The strings, led by concertmaster Sarah Attwood, delivered suitably varied tones ranging from savage strumming to a sumptuous “Philadelphia sound.” The winds had some marvelous moments, including particularly fine solos from Nikoma Baccus, flute; and  Jensen Ling, bassoon (in the “Roasted Swan” the bassoon goes up to high D). The busy and exposed brass section had fewer than the expected share of mishaps.

If there were any complaint about this performance it would be over-exuberance from the orchestra. They reached fortes a bit too quickly and too often when they should have been more deferential to the soloists and the chorus. This took away some of the drama that rightfully belongs to the singers in this piece.

Three pianos in The Warriors (MIchael J. Lutch photo)

The opener was Edgard Varèse’s Hyperprism, a noisy and scary grab-bag of orchestral tricks delivered in under ten minutes. The small ensemble of mostly brass (also clarinet and flute doubling piccolo), with a very large percussion section (typical of Varèse), benefited from Hoose’s objective marshaling. This music has its own drama in abundance and doesn’t want or need any romantic shaping.

When we think of Percy Grainger, we summon up Country Gardens, or Lincolnshire Posy, or similar light semi-classical favorites from our grandparents’ era. How surprising it was for me then to make a first acquaintance with the composer’s The Warriors—Music to an Imaginary Ballet, one of his few experiments in larger, more serious forms. He always had doubts about his place in the canon, and this piece seemed a way for him to show his modern bona fides. His tunes were still in evidence, but they were fractured and interspersed with riffs on Stravinsky and other modernists. Grainger demanded a very large ensemble with many pianos (three on Monday night) and an offstage brass band. Two assistant conductors helped Hoose deal with the rhythmic complexity. We were grateful to encounter a piece unheard in Boston since 1925 in such a secure and confident performance.

But I do wonder, if he is right about his charges, why David Hoose would program works of two anti-Semites and a possible Nazi and then feel the need to write a three paragraph apologia. I’m not convinced that the quality of the compositions compensated for the composers’ alleged baggage. But I’m happy to let David offer his rationalizations in the excerpt below:

Do the personalities, beliefs and proclivities of creative artists have bearing on the quality of their work? . . . Should our judgments about their creations be swayed by what we know of them as people. . . may we hold them (and their work) accountable to a hindsight that only we may have? Edgard Varèse was an anti-Semite. Percy Grainger was one, too. . . Carl Orff, too, is  troubling. . .  a man who thrived in Germany during the Second World War. . . he tended to indulge in history rewrites that cast himself in more favorable light than perhaps warranted. . . Richard Taruskin, ever the uninhibited musicologist, said that, “aesthetics or not, Carmina Burana to me is fascist music.”

In closing I append (with permission) David Hoose’s lucid notes on the two unfamiliar works he presented. He described them better than I can.

Violence dominates “Hyperprism’s” brief span, especially in the percussion outbursts and the extreme registers of the wind instruments. Piccolo and little clarinet screeches pit against the trombone growls and percussion convulsions. The tenor trombone leads with oratorical hysteria, and the two woodwinds respond, first separately and shackled together. Suddenly everything quiets, and ominous percussion thumps suggest that what has come before was simply introductory, and that the piece is just about to really begin. Affirming that impression, the three horns cry out heroically, but the other instruments cut them off with a terrifying sustained chord, the percussion build thunderously, and the piece abruptly stops. The large shape of Varese’s music frequently surprises, but Hyperprism is one of the most startling, its ritual halted before it has completely established itself.

 “The Warriors” is thrilling, unpredictable music, jumping freely from the goofy to the touching, (occasionally) violent, and (often) giddily chaotic. Were its harmonic language much more chromatic, the music would invoke the controlled pandemonium of Charles Ives. The Warriors does include some Ivesian trademarks, including multiple layers of music traveling in different tempi (requiring two conductors) and the call of a distant brass band (requiring yet another, third, conductor).

“The Warriors’ ” score’s daunting instrumentation requires piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, bass oboe (an entirely different beast than the English horn), two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones, tuba, the off-stage band that includes two each of trumpets, horns and trombones, and a full string section. To that already large ensemble is added two harps, celesta, and a huge group of percussion instruments, mostly pitched percussion, including timpani, xylophone, glockenspiel, steel marimba, wooden marimba, bells, chimes, snare drum, tambourine, cymbals, bass drum, gong, castanets, and woodblock. To top it off, The Warriors calls for three pianos. The composer suggests six or nine pianos, or even more if three aren’t loud enough, and there is even a photograph4 showing a 1930 performance by the Chicago Musical College at the Chicago Civic Opera House, with a full orchestra that includes thirty pianists playing nineteen pianos! (This performance will include only a modest three.) It is therefore no surprise that this spectacular music is infrequently performed. There is no record of its having been heard in Boston since January of 1925, when Grainger conducted the People’s Symphony Orchestra of Boston in the second public performance.

See related article here.

Chorus and orchestra in Carmina Burana (Michael J. Lutch photo)


  1. The anti-Semitism issue raised here troubles me. I had never heard that Varèse was anti-Semitic; indeed, he railed against d’Indy for being “an anti-Semite who was against Dreyfus.” That was true about d’Indy, but Varèse disliked d’Indy for being empty-headed. Mostly, I get the impression that Varèse was hostile to any religion; he was said to have written off his daughter when she became a nun.

    As for Grainger, he was a Nordic supremacist, and I’m sure that any anti-Semitism he may have expressed was in that kind of terms — he was against the Mediterranean (= French and Italian) influence in music, and took pains to suppress Italian terms from his music and Latin-derived words from his speech (“louden lots,” etc.). His anti-Semitism certainly did not apply to individual cases; he formed good friendships with Milhaud and Richard Franko Goldman, to name just two who were sympathetic to his music. Grainger was present at the 1909 world premiere (in London) of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for orchestra, op. 16, and was overwhelmed by them. There’s a very interesting letter about that experience in Kay Dreyfus’s (no relation to Colonel Alfred, I assume) book of Grainger letters, *The Farthest North of Humanness*.

    Orff was probably a Nazi only to further his own career; the same could be said about von Karajan. I remember reading in Gottfried von Einem’s autobiography (though I have been warned that it was full of inaccuracies, being compiled from his notes after his death) that Orff was in danger of being drafted and sent to the Russian front, and only some serious intervention from several VIPs prevented that from happening. Karajan is supposed to have said about this, “That’s too bad. I think it would be good for Orff to serve in the Wehrmacht.” Of course, the Nazis loved *Carmina Burana.* I think that most of it is pretty vulgar stuff myself, with a few good moments that seem copied from Stravinsky’s *Les Noces*, and there’s no question that it’s performed far too often; but I agree, it’s fun, quite a bit of it. Oh yes, the first chord is the same pitch-classes and spacing as the first chord in the Act III Interlude in *Wozzeck,* and I’m sure that Orff didn’t even know it.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm

  2. Mr. DeVoto, I’m glad to read your comments on the possible anti-Semitic and Nazi sympathies of the composers on this concert. I expect that Percy Grainger was more connected with Edwin Franko Goldman than with his son, Richard Franko Goldman, since his commissions and performances with the Goldman Band came in the father’s era.

    Comment by Stephen Owades — November 20, 2012 at 8:20 pm

  3. I’m sure you’re right about that. It must have been Edwin.

    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 20, 2012 at 8:31 pm

  4. I hope everybody who spoke about the Orff piece knows that the correct pronunciation of “carmina” is CAR-mih-nah, not car-MEE-na. That mispronunciation is definitely one of my pet peeves.

    Agreeing with Mr. DeVoto that it’s performed too often, I’d suggest a remedy would be to forbid anybody who says car-MEE-na from ever playing, singing, or conducting it. If I never hear it again, that will be soon enough.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 21, 2012 at 12:46 am

  5. Joe, is ‘Car Meena Banana’ okay? (O, Fortuna!)

    Comment by david moran — November 21, 2012 at 10:16 pm

  6. Is it not, indeed, a bit rash to characterize Edgard Varese as “an antisemite”? The famous statement that Varese made about jazz — that jazz is “not American music, but Black music exploited by Jews” seems to be an indictment of WASP America for failing to appreciate the value and creativity of jazz (especially since “exploit” in French would be more neutral, more matter-of-fact, than in English; meaning something like “smart enough to cultivate, appreciate” jazz.) There are other reasons to question labeling Varese as “an antisemite.” He hated and despised Vincent d’Indy and praised Berlin over Paris in 1907 because of the vibrant Jewish patronage of music in Berlin. So: when all is said and done, Varese seems to have been less antisemitic overall, than, say, our own dear beloved and controversial Gertrude Stein.. As for Percy Grainger, his very racialist antisemitism seems to have been part and parcel of a cluster of distressing kinky impulses — a desperate defense against overwhelming shame (?). (My point is that it is good to raise these questions with students.)

    Comment by Ashley — November 22, 2012 at 8:52 am

  7. “Joe, is ‘Car Meena Banana’ okay?”

    Only in an advertising jingle.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 22, 2012 at 6:13 pm

  8. Why stop with car-MEE-na? 95% of English-speakers say byoo-RAH-nah as well. For those who care to be correct, the correct pronunciation is CAR-mih-nah boo-RAH-nah. (And now prepare for us to be labeled pedants, Joe!)

    Comment by Geoff Wieting — November 24, 2012 at 3:04 pm

  9. You say “Car-MEE-na,” I say “Car-MA-na,”
    You say “Bu-REE-na,” I say “Bu-RA-na,”
    Carmina, Carmana, Burina, Burana —
    Let’s Carl the whole thing Orff!


    Comment by Mark DeVoto — November 24, 2012 at 4:41 pm

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