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Classical Connection review: Oct. 29 Fort Wayne Philharmonic

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On Saturday, October 29, in Fort Wayne's Embassy Theatre, Andrew Constantine and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic presented music by Leonard Bernstein, Patrick O'Malley, and Carl Orff.

The major work on the program was Carl Orff's 1937 secular cantata "Carmina Burana" or "Songs of Beuren," which is a setting of poems from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries that are mostly in Latin and middle German, as well as some Old French. (Beuren is a portion of Germany's Bavaria region.) The performers were soprano Maeve Hoglund, tenor Patrick Muehleise, and baritone Christian Bowers, who were joined by the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Chorus (prepared by Benjamin Rivera), the Fort Wayne Children's Chorus (prepared by Jonathan Busarow), the Purdue Fort Wayne University Singers (prepared by William Sauerland), and an expanded orchestra that featured abundant brass and percussion. Since the stage was filled with the singers and orchestra, Conductor Andrew Constantine stood on a podium at the very edge of that stage.

It's hard to imagine that such an "earthy" work would have been premiered in Nazi Germany by the Frankfurt Opera in a fully-staged version that included sets and costumes. Despite some concerns by a government that tended to be moralistic and even old-fashioned, the success of the music convinced leaders not to repress or condemn "Carmina." It has generally been presented in a concert setting and that was true of this performance.

The music begins and ends with a full chorus that partially translates, "O Fortune, like the moon you are changeable, ever waxing and waning; hateful life first oppresses and then soothes as fancy takes it; poverty and power it melts them like ice."

This definitely serves as musical bookends for a work that features texts celebrating the joys and pleasures of life, including drinking, eating, gambling, and lovemaking. It's hard to imagine that such texts would be collected by medieval monks, but it's possible they viewed it as the things that people should avoid and not embrace. It is hard for us today to understand or appreciate medieval mindsets, which were often rather vulgar and even lewd by modern standards.

Anyway, the chorus was sung with great diction and precision. The orchestra provided a very colorful and vivid accompaniment in this music as well as all of the other pieces in the cantata.

The baritone, Christian Bowers, was the first of the soloists to be heard. He sang with a rich, resonant, and compelling voice that suited the earthiness of the texts. He was joined by the men's chorus in one of the most challenging portions of the cantata, "When we are in the tavern." This text celebrates gambling and drinking and makes it clear that EVERYONE loves to drink. It was sung as a great jubilant celebration with considerable enthusiasm and gusto.

Tenor Patrick Mueheise had only one solo, the mournful song about a swan that is being roasted on a spit and will soon be featured on dinner plates. There is mixture of tragedy and comedy in the song, "Once I lived on lakes." The men's chorus joins the baritone in this memorable piece. Muehleise sang with a high, pleading, and pitiful sound and he looked for some pity or sympathy, but this was a hopeless cause. As a "stage gesture," he eventually fled the stage after singing with such emotion.

Soprano Maeve Hoglund is a tall, imposing woman and she wore a mostly red, floral, strapless evening gown. She was joined by the children's chorus in one of the more risqué numbers, "Cupid flies everywhere." This song deals with desire and bemoans "the girl without a lover (who) misses out on all pleasures." Later, she sang the short and ecstatic solo, "Sweetest boy, I give everything to you." Here she displayed considerable virtuosity.

This performance proved to be a real showpiece for singers and orchestra. It is remarkable how Orff varies the accompaniment in the multi-verse songs, offering considerable variety in the mostly melodic musical language. Orff did not try to write anything controversial or especially modern; his music speaks to all times. It was guided expertly by Constantine and was almost uniformly top-notch.

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Provided by Rob Nylund
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Constantine told the preview audience that we should focus on Orff's colorful music rather than the perplexing texts since it is hard for us today to understand what life was like in medieval times. "Carmina" has indeed enjoyed numerous performances since 1937 and it transcended the controversial times and thoughts in which it was premiered. The words are a product of a vanished era, but the music remains vivid and unique to this day. Indeed, "Carmina" has become a virtual "one hit wonder" for Carl Orff, whose other works are mostly forgotten and neglected today.

The concert began with yet another product of another time, the "Three Dance Episodes" from Leonard Bernstein's 1944 musical comedy "On The Town." This is essentially a short orchestral suite from the wartime musical that was inspired by Bernstein's ballet music for "Fancy Free." Both works celebrate three sailors who are on leave in New York City from the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. The most famous melody of the musical, "New York, New York," is included in the third section, which is titled "Times Square: 1944." Although the story may now be dated, the music remains lively and listenable. Constantine ensured that we heard the wonderful details of the score, from the jazzy moments in the first and third sections to this "bluesy" and poignant second section.

The Philharmonic had a world premiere with Patrick O'Malley's Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, "The Horizons," featuring violist Brett Deubner. The work is in four sections: (1) Fantasia - Crystal Visions, (2) Scherzo - Ventures and Motions; (3) Adagio - Solitary Compass; (4) Finale Deciso. O'Malley, who grew up in Fort Wayne, said, "My viola concerto concerns itself with a process of rejuvenation, beginning a place of stasis and uncertainty, and moving to a hopeful look towards the future (the Horizons)."

The concerto begins with a number of musical fragments scattered among the musicians, as if to depict a searching, seeking, wandering, and wondering. There is initially a lack of clear direction or purpose. It seems rather bizarre and abstract, certainly puzzling, until the viola begins to provide some increasingly lyrical statements. The first few minutes are certainly challenging, both for the musicians and the audience. I was aware that some around us were puzzled, confused, or troubled by what was happening. However, the musical language eventually shifted to something quite beautiful and meaningful.

The scherzo was, as one would expect, quite animated and joyful at times. The soloist showed great virtuosity and zeal as the section progressed, building to quite a climax that fooled some audience members into thinking the concerto had ended. However, this was followed by the very intense and introspective third section, the truly "spiritual" portion of the work. Here the music seemed to find more direction and purpose. This all led to the true finale: a spectacular, exciting, and energetic song for viola and orchestra.

Overall, many of us appreciated this highly original work, which is a true spectacular for the viola and the other musicians. I detected some influence from Sir William Walton, but the concerto was generally quite personal and personable. Some of us did stand to cheer the violist, Deubner, but others seemed to be puzzled or perplexed. At least the general response was favorable and I have to say that this is a work that should be heard again, whether in concert or on a recording. Perhaps, since the entire concert was recorded, a recording may be issued of this and other recent Philharmonic performances.

The Philharmonic itself will be presenting mostly "pops" concerts in November and December, as well as another "candlelight" performance of Handel's oratorio "The Messiah" at the Rhinehart Music Center at Purdue Fort Wayne on Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. The regular "Masterworks" series will resume on Jan. 28, 2023, at 7:30 p.m. in the Embassy Theatre.

Rob Nylund is the host of WBOI's Classical Connection every Saturday evening from 6 to 8 p.m.