Music News & Reviews

May 15, 2014

‘Carmina Burana’ keeps their world turning

Soloists join the Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra for a mammoth production of a vocal spectacle.

Some performers can’t get enough of “Carmina Burana.” The Sacramento Choral Society and Orchestra hopes the same is true of its local audience.

Just seven weeks after the Sacramento Ballet presented its dance-heavy version of “Carmina Burana,” the SCSO tackles the Carl Orff masterwork with a 60-piece orchestra and 270 singers – its full chorus plus the Sacramento Children’s Chorus, the California State University, Sacramento, Chorus and guest performers.

With its thunderous opening and wide-ranging emotions, “Carmina Burana” represents a visceral challenge to any ensemble. It also demands stand-out soloists. That’s just what the SCSO gets in soprano Nikki Einfeld, baritone Dan Kempson and tenor Kirill Dushechkin.

SCSO director and conductor Donald Kendrick, who has been preparing for Saturday’s production since last year, didn’t have to look far for Dushechkin, a Russian-born singer who now makes his home in Sacramento. (In “Carmina,” he performs the role of the “roasted swan.”) But Einfeld and Kempson are “Carmina” specialists who will be making their Sacramento debuts.

“This will be my ninth ‘Carmina,’ ” said Kempson in a phone interview from Texas where he was performing with the Fort Worth Opera. “It’s certainly been a big part of my career so far. And I’m still in my 20s. I do two or three ‘Carminas’ a year.”

“It’s a very, very popular piece,” said Einfeld, who recently performed “Carmina” with the San Francisco and Marin symphonies. “Often, people don’t realize they know it until they hear it.”

Said Kempson, “It opens with a bang and just keeps going. I love the piece; 80 minutes go by really fast. It’s so energetic.”

“It’s such powerful music,” Einfeld said. “It stirs the soul. At every performance, everybody’s on their feet at the end and so excited, applauding wildly. It’s a wonderful thing to come see and be part of.”

As his libretto, Orff used 24 medieval poems that were discovered at a Benedictine monastery in Beuern, Germany. (“Carmina Burana” translates to “Songs of Beuern.”) Linked by the wheel of fortune, the songs are divided into evocative sections: “In the Spring,” “In the Tavern” and “The Court of Love.”

Stretching their voices to their limits, Einfeld and Kempson portray multiple characters woven through those poems.

“It’s a story of connections,” said Einfeld, who lives in Marin County. “It’s really kind of a journey. The baritone is not one character but embodies many. The soprano is kind of the same thing.”

Those characters may not be named but become immediately recognizable.

“At the very end of the piece, I become ‘the prize,’ ” Einfeld said. “(The poem) is about seduction, l’amour. My character is Helen (of Troy), Venus or even the Virgin Mary. She’s all those feminine qualities embodied in one. She starts out very coy, then edges closer to the climax and finally gives in.

“See what happens when you give into lust and desire?” she added with a laugh.

Kempson, who is based in New York and San Jose, loves the challenges and humor of “Carmina.”

“It’s incredibly dramatic,” he said. “It’s fascinating, too. It’s definitely one of the most dramatic concert pieces. It also has a really great drinking song.”

The baritone is key to that extended and raucous tavern scene.

“It’s so much fun,” he said, “because so much of concert vocal music is religious in nature. When suddenly you’re presented with a concert piece like this where – in the middle of it, men are drinking and telling everybody to imbibe and my character is telling a story and getting drunker and drunker – it’s very very funny. Usually, we’re singing a requiem.”

It’s all a part of the allure of “Carmina.”

“The whole piece opens with wheel of fortune symbolism and it keeps coming back to that,” Einfeld said. “As the wheel turns, our fate is sometimes good, sometimes bad. But ultimately, ‘Carmina’ asks us, what are we put on this Earth to achieve? It’s about connections with other people and that molds our lives.”

Editor’s note: This story as corrected on May 16.

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