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The Erie Philharmonic play Mendelssohn and Orff

On the surface, an Erie Philharmonic program pairing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Orff’s scenic cantata “Carmina Burana” looks daft. One is an almost chamber-scale 19th Century masterwork of great delicacy (albeit with big tunes) and the other is a 20th Century piece of bombast (albeit with delicate moments). The Orff was beloved by the Nazis while Mendelssohn, though nominally a Lutheran, was a descendent of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

But there was method to Phil music director Daniel Meyer’s apparent madness. As he told me in an interview for my Erie Times preview of the concert, the idea was to invoke spring.

And who could blame him? Last year’s penultimate Phil subscription concert arrived during the harrowing March 9 blizzard. There were more bodies on stage last evening, Philharmonic executive director Erie Borenstein observed, than there were in the audience for last year’s concert.

If the Mendelssohn was to be a harbinger, spring will be a patchy, stop-and-start affair this year. Violinist Chad Hoopes played the piece as well as you can expect a 14-year-old not named Yehudi Menuhin to play it. He got most of the notes, but missed the verdant lyricism of the thing. His reading also was curiously devoid of the piece’s youthful impetuosity, as well, though he did catch fire in the finale (leaving the orchestra to play catch-up while he surges ahead). Look the kid is 14, after all, and my guess is that most of the rehearsal time was given over to the Orff, which despite its relatively simple rhythms and triadic harmony, is still a very big work.

Big describes the onstage forces. Extra percussion, Kris Denton’s piano and an army of choristers crowded the Warner stage, but to good effect. What a great and rare pleasure to actually hear the chorus! Part of this effect was due to the 50-odd members of the Mendelssohn (him again!) Choir of Pittsburgh who augmented the Erie Philharmonic Chorus. But I didn’t hear the Erieites pulling the Pittsburghers down with them. Clearly, new chorus master Jason Bishop is having the same transformative effect on the formerly tired-sounding Phil Chorus as he has on his Young People’s Chorus of Erie, which also made an appearance).

So the ubiquitous “O Fortuna” that opens “Carmina” made it’s customary big effect. But it was in the smaller moments that this performance shone. The “Im taberna” sequence, with its tales of drinking and debauchery, was nicely shaped, and tenor Dean Kokanos nearly stole the show when he skulked on stage, schlubby and round-shouldered, and mugged his way through the song of the unfortunate roasted swan (for the record, he got almost all of the notes in this punitively high-lying aria).

Jonathan Beyer showed a firm baritone with some ring at the top, and was unexpectedly tender in the lovelorn “Circa mea pectora” song. His reading of the line “Vellet deus, vellent dii/quod mente proposul/ut eius virginea reserassem vincula” (“May the gods look with favor on my desire to undo the bonds of her virginity.”) evoked a 13th Century precursor of Steve Carrell’s 40-year-old virgin.

Along with soprano Deborah Selig (fresh-voiced and charming, even in a gown that seemed to come from a live staging of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty”) the soloists — and the choruses, for that matter — paid careful attention to enunciating the texts.

And, about those texts. Supertitles were provided via PowerPoint slides. The translations seemed quite literal with little of the scansion and rhyme schemes of the 13th Century texts. The effect was to highlight the earthiness — all right, the bawdiness — of the satirical tales of the Beuern Goliards. And it worked, with the audience tittering and sometimes laughing out loud.

Loud: that’s an adjective frequently applied to “Carmina,” and this performance had its moments of blunt-force volume (the bass drum thwacks in “O Fortuna” had a wonderfully dire and fateful quality). But Meyer shaped the piece with great attention to detail, perhaps too much.

Granted, “Carmina” is not Beethoven. Effect is what matters here, not structure. Still, Meyer’s “Carmina” struck me as a collection of moments, rather than a coherent statement. Perhaps that’s as much a characteristic of the work as it was of the interpretation.

And though Meyer couldn’t bring spring to a winter-weary Erie, the temperature in a very full Warner house was too darn hot, even if the performances were not.

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