We go way back, Carmina Burana and I. I've performed Carl Orff's perennially popular blockbuster with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra four times as a chorus member. And one of those occasions provided a very profound lesson as to the power of great music to both inflame and unite a community. There I was, chatting with friends in front of the stage, basking in the afterglow of a pretty good performance. Suddenly, a huge man — nearly 7 feet tall — barreled up to me with his "little girl" (nearly my height) in tow. I recognized her from the children's choir we'd just sung with.
"Was you in that performance?" he rumbled in seismic tones.
"Er ... yes," I meekly replied.
His grin flashed like lightning as he crunched my hand in his ham-like fist, shaking me around like a rag doll. "Well, that sure was some powerful music," he nearly shouted. "My baby girl here was up there singin' wit' you. She ain't talked about nuthin' else for weeks — workin' with a real orchestra and all — and now she wants to be a musician, too. And I just wanted to say thank you to somebody."
I got choked up as the warmth of his gratitude — and his child's glowing smile — flowed through me. I've never been prouder to be a musician in my whole life; to have been even a tiny part of a musical experience that had stirred a young soul and maybe even changed a life for the better, a life that was part of our very own community.
And our fair city's musical forces came together again last Saturday at the jam-packed Gaillard Auditorium for the CSO's most thrilling go yet at the 20th century's biggest, baddest choral work ever. It also offers some of the most colorful, rhythmically vital orchestral music ever written, and the nicely reinforced CSO really made it sizzle. While no performance is ever perfect, it was hard to find major fault here: only a picky geek like me could catch the few tiny flaws.
And, ah, the chorus! Never have so many singers (at least 250 of 'em) packed the Gaillard stage, and did they ever crank out the decibels. Talk about community involvement: the trusty CSO Chorus anchored the effort, with members of the CSO Gospel Choir and student singers from the College of Charleston Concert Choir joining the fray. The capable kids are known as the Ashley River Unichorus. It was the kind of rainbow coalition that Charleston needs more of.
David Stahl led a crackling, cohesive performance. One of the biggest improvements came from his decision this time to follow the composer's original instructions (ignored by most conductors) to assign certain delicate or busy passages to small "sub-choirs" of the best voices. These are the trickiest parts that the massed choirs would've otherwise turned into vocal mush. The payoff was crisper rhythms, cleaner diction, and more adventurous tempos. But the heavy sections sounded absolutely glorious with all 250 pairs of vocal cords going full tilt.
The three soloists, despite cruelly high notes for all of them, were first rate. The workhorse was baritone Gary Martin, whose rich vocal resonance ran even into top notes that most baritones must sing in falsetto. Soprano Lisette Oropesa sang with skill and sweetness, and local countertenor Ricard Bordas (one of several prominent Charleston artists with an international reputation) delivered a very effective swan song.
I yearned to slip on a pair of Groucho glasses, run up onto the stage, and join in the singing, but I settled for lip-synching. The final, crashing note gave way to the audience's lusty roar, as they leapt to their feet like their seats had been hot-wired. You couldn't have asked for a more exciting way to kick off a very promising new CSO season.