Saturday, April 13, 2013


Severance Hall
April 11

A witty and accomplished pinch-hit performance.

O Fortuna! The conductor is out with a bad back, whatever shall we do?

In the case of the orchestraʼs performances of Carmina Burana this weekend, the answer came surprisingly easily, and with exemplary results: Put Assistant Conductor James Feddeck on the podium.

As anyone who has heard the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Orchestra knows, it takes no back seat to its parent in either programming or playing. Under Feddeckʼs direction, the young ensemble (18 is the upper age limit) routinely turns in sharp, sophisticated performances, most recently at a March 10 concert that included a thoroughly professional treatment of Tchaikovskyʼs Symphony No. 5. And it was largely at Feddeckʼs urging that the ensemble mounted its first-ever international tour last summer, impressing audiences in Prague, Vienna and Salzburg.

Even under the best of circumstances Carmina Burana presents a formidable challenge, calling for a tight performance from a large orchestra, full chorus, childrenʼs chorus and three solo vocalists. With so much firepower onstage, the usual approach is to crank up the volume and let ʼer rip, trusting that the sheer spectacle and emotional grandeur of Carl Orffʼs overstuffed cantata will satiate the audience. There was plenty of that. But Feddeck showed that there can also be some artistry in the piece.

His fine touch was evident in the opener, Bachʼs Concerto in A major (BWV1055), which provided a gentle counterbalance in the programming and a rare solo opportunity for english horn player Robert Walters. The concerto has been performed for more than two centuries with a chamber orchestra and harpsichord soloist, but recent scholarship suggests that Bach originally wrote the solo parts for oboe dʼamore, a mid-range member of the oboe family. Walters showed expert facility with the instrument, caressing his lines and matching the graceful lilt that Feddeck drew from a 26-piece chamber ensemble.

The ensemble included a harpsichord, but that was only one element in the authentic early music sound that Feddeck created. Baroque is often played with a beat in the U.S., which gives it a modern cast. Feddeckʼs version was true to the period, measured and buoyant with an elegant flowing quality, the Old World sound gilded by light, sweet violins.

The big choral blast that opened Carmina Burana in the second half quickly gave way to the insistent rhythms that drive the piece, which in Feddeckʼs hands were comparatively muted and controlled – and better for it. That set the opening chords of the “Primo Vere” section in sharp relief, with soft choral work maintaining just the right tension throughout the repeating motif. A careful balance between the orchestra and chorus characterized the entire piece, giving it added depth and dimension, particularly in the Round Dance of the “Uf dem Anger” section and the soprano solos in the “Cour dʼAmours.”

Feddeckʼs craftsmanship was evident in many small details – solo woodwind lines of sparkling clarity, sharp cracks of percussion, and rich colors to augment the singers. The tenorʼs swan lament in the “In Taberna” section was like a clinic in the clever use of orchestration, with witty commentary from snarky horns, grumbling trombones and ominous gongs. There was even a touch of an oom-pah-pah band in the main tavern scene, with the male chorus roaring through the endless toasts and the percussion mimicking beer glasses slamming on the table.

The singers got in the spirit with perhaps too much mugging. Tenor Nicholas Phan drew titters of laughter fanning himself and collapsing from the heat of the oven, and baritone Stephen Powell managed to work a hiccup into a wobbly rendition of the abbotʼs drunken declamation. Soprano Rebecca Nelsenʼs histrionics occasionally overshadowed her lovely, agile voice, which took on a lustrous glow in the quickening emotions of “Cour dʼAmours.”

Feddeck invoked the gates of heaven with dramatic drums, horns and high volume for “Blanziflor et Helena,” then dropped to a slow simmer for the concluding return to “Fortuna,” building to a thundering finish that he conducted with two-handed sweeps of the baton, like a tennis player making a backhand smash. Fate is indeed a wild and fickle mistress, as Franz Welser-Möst can attest. But she smiled on his replacement, and the audience, this night.

Many performances of Carmina Burana are posted on YouTube. Hereʼs one conducted by Polish phenom Krzysztof Urbański:

Photo by Roger Mastrioanni

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