Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Carmina Burana" performance a fitting finale for MSO's 75th season AND its departing conductor

review by Janet I. Martineau
Wow, what a fabulous finale -- both for the Midland Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season and conductor Antonia Joy Wilson’s tenure.
We’re talking about Saturday night’s sold-out performance of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” -- a collection of monk-penned poems about love, drinking, springtime, lust, gambling, fate and fortune; fortunately set to music sung in Latin, medieval French and middle high German to avoid an R rating,
Imagine upwards of 300 musicians, singers and dancers amassed on the Midland Center for the Arts stage to perform a work that is as full of whirlwind music as the weather outside these days.
To see that stage pushed back as far as it can go to the back wall was in and of itself an amazing sight. Then watching the combined forces of the Midland Music Society Chorale, Saginaw Choral Society and Central Michigan University Concert Choir slowly fill the seats created the first goosebumps of the night.
Could Wilson keep all that combined vocal power under control -- along with a full-sized orchestra, three guest soloists, seven dancers from Detroit’s DDCdances, and Midland’s Youth Honors Choir in the balcony? For 25 movements?
Yes, she did -- and magnificently!
OK, there was, in a couple of movements, some small orchestral issues. And the DDCdances dancers, in their six appearances, sometimes wobbled a bit and were not always quite 100 percent with the music at hand. The choreography also is up for debate.
But the vocal side of the ledger was superb -- all those voices singing as one, no matter the difficulty (and there is plenty of it is this work), quietly when needed and full bore the next second, four separate groups having to merge with very little full rehearsal together.
What was remarkable, too, is that they rose and sat virtually silently, and in unison. No easy task but one which kept the magic alive.
More than once we closed our eyes just to savor that choral sound, in particular the passages sung by just the men -- surely this was biggest massed choir that mid-Michigan has ever seen, perhaps. But then, when we opened our eyes, we often found we were missing some of the dances. Or the bass drum boomed and we jumped because we didn’t see it coming.
As for the guest soloists -- baritone Chad Sloan and tenor Kyle Knapp were outstanding actors as well as singers. 
Who needed a translation to realize Sloan’s character was drunk in “I Am the Abbot,” hick-ups and all. His tenor-to-bass athletics in “Day, Night and All” was remarkable in its smoothness.
And Knapp’s dying swan in “Once I Dwelt in the Lakes”  was hilarious with his body language and plopping back in his chair, to say nothing of his exquisite high lyric tenor voice which raised more goosebumps.
But back to the orchestra. This is a percussive piece, and the percussion section drove the magic of the night  along with the singers -- in particular the bass drum player who shook the rafters. But throughout there were noteworthy passages from bassoonist Drew Hinderer, hornist William Wollner, tuba player Mark Cox and trumpeter James Young.
Wilson opened the concert with the equally whirlwind “Polovtsian Dances” by Borodin, sort of a warm-up for what was to come and also superbly executed.
Which brings us to Wilson, in Midland a mere three years. Clearly the audience loved her -- she got a standing ovation, a long and heart-felt one, at the opening when she received a gift.
She got cheers at the end -- and a push forward by one of the choral conductors, to get a final bow of her own.
We enjoyed her tenure, some of the risks took, the programming, the outreach, the growth of the orchestra. We do not know the politics of why her contract was not renewed....nor do we really want to. We just know we’ll miss her. 
Fortunately her masterful conducting of “Carmina Burana” will long sustain the memory of her tenure here.

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