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Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012

Milwaukee Symphony Chorus Shines in 'Carmina Burana'

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Long considered one of classical music's most addictive guilty pleasures, Carl Orff's Carmina Burana may not command the respect of more prestigious choral works, but its rollicking hedonistic decadence seems in tune with the moral indifference of our times. Although based upon a 13th-century manuscript of doggerel devised by rebellious clerical dropouts, one would never suspect the manuscript's lowbrow origins while hearing Orff's musically sophisticated rendition as performed by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra under the aggressive, unyieldingly elegant baton of former music director Andreas Delfs.

In a mesmerizing performance that highlighted the stylishness of Orff's brilliant score, structured around wildly percussive harmonic blocks and foot-stomping tunefulness, Delfs invoked hair-raising urgency to the score's primitive rhythms, adding greater dimension to its infectious spontaneity and pagan abandon.

The Milwaukee Symphony Chorus has been improving incrementally in recent seasons. Their tonal balance and uncanny precision, along with the participation of the Milwaukee Children's Choir, resulted in a performance rivaling the finest heard anywhere. Tenor Andrew Bidlack seemed somewhat light-toned, but the solid baritone of Hugh Russell resulted in a rollicking, audience-pleasing performance sometimes challenged by Delfs' orchestral demands. The vocal highlight of the evening was the beautiful lyric-coloratura vocalizing of Norah Amsellem, whose pure vibrato-free and effortless singing above the staff compared well with the best of more famous sopranos.

The program began with Brahms' compilation of his and Dvorak's Slavonic Dances. Delfs' disciplined hair-raising precision has a unique musicality all its own. It was a pleasure to welcome him back as guest conductor.

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