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The ASO’s ‘Carmina Burana’, a Polish Treasure, and a Local Celebrity

"The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s season comes to a close this weekend, and to mark the occasion they offered up three of the greatest pleasures of live concerts. For the listener, these are hearing a superlative performance of a familiar work, discovering an unknown treasure, and getting the opportunity to rub elbows with local celebrities. They scored big on all fronts."

[As originally reported by Pierre Ruhe of The Atlanta Journal Constitution]

"Polish composer Karol Szymanowski died young, age 55, in 1937, and left a small catalogue of minor masterpieces. His “Mythes” for violin and piano are out-of-this-world gorgeous; his piano miniatures and songs radiate shimmering color and a modest yet fully formed personality.

Friday in Symphony Hall, Robert Spano conducted the ASO’s first performance of Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 3. Subtitled “Song of the Night,” its texts are drawn from the 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi, whose sensual, enveloping poetry might be likened to a warm bath lit by scented candles — you have to be in the mood for it, but if you are the experience can shut out the rest of the world, blissfully.

The music of Szymanowski — pronounced something like “schuman-off-ski” — fits the description as well. He completed his 25-minute Third Symphony in 1916. You can listen for the composer’s pan-European influences, from his debt to Scriabin’s Russian orientalism to Strauss’ Zarathrustrian voluptuousness to Debussy’s sea imagery. But Szymanowski’s own voice in this music is too potent, too pleasurable, too ecstatic to bother with comparisons.

In Spano’s vital reading, the Third Symphony was heady and irresistible, with solo violin commentary from Cecylia Arzewski, who found its slavic flavor, and with tenor John Tessier’s bright voice and alert diction (even though it’s sung in Polish).

The ASO Chorus is often at its best when presented a challenge and here they seemed to have mastered yet another language. It’s a wonder this exotic symphony isn’t yet in the repertoire; the audience gave it only polite applause.

Spano paired fragile, delicate Szymanowski with the biggest rabble-rouser of them all, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” a 1936 oratorio setting crude, 13th century German poems on drinking, love and living the good/bad life. (Was Spano making a political point about 13th century culture, of the wicked sin of the medieval West compared with the refined sophistication of Rumi’s ancient Persia? The world spins in global cycles, his pairing seemed to suggest.)

Musically, the conductor reveled in the extremes. Compared with other Atlanta performances I’ve heard in recent years, Spano’s interpretation was maximally savage and sweet, vulgar and visceral, campy and, at the end, heart-breakingly earnest.

The three solo singers were of high quality, led by baritone Stephen Powell, whose lyrical, chestnut-timbre voice and comic acting earned him the most attention. Tenor Tessier impersonated a roasted swan with a tone that was properly buttery and tortured. In the charming “Stetit puella” — “There stood a girl” — soprano Cyndia Sieden sang with warmth and immediacy.

But a great performance of “Carmina Burana” always belongs to the choir. Everyone in Atlanta should hear Norman Mackenzie’s ASO Chorus, a primal force of nature, sing this over-the-top classic at least once, as one of the city’s greatest cultural attractions."

One of the city's other attractions, Atlanta resident superhero Keeferman, was also in attendance. With him were his wife, her parents, her sister, and a close friend identified only as "Ayla". "Oh, yes, it was great", Keeferman said. "Carmina Burana is one of my favorite pieces and I've got three or four different recordings of it back at home. They did a great job -especially that baritone. Oh, one thing though... if any of you kids out there are thinking about being symphony conductors when you grow up... i prefer gongs to cymbals in "O Fortuna". "