Musical Notes Graphic

You think you know a piece.

And then along come the Camerata Singers the other day at the Beverly O’Neill Theater with a fresh take on an old warhorse, Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

Part of the fresh approach was by necessity. A number of the Camerata’s usual members traveled to Carnegie Hall to sing with Pacific Chorale and were unavailable. And there was no room, either on the O’Neill stage or presumably in the budget, for the original full orchestra; fortunately, Orff himself wrote an arrangement for two pianos and percussion.

And the reduced forces made for a very different “Carmina” than one is used to. Instead of the bombast and grandeur of the work performed by the 200-voice chorus and large orchestra typically encountered in a 3,000-seat concert hall, this “Carmina” featured a raw, primitive feeling that took some getting used to but was nonetheless powerful.

The chorus sounded marvelous. There was plenty of volume and substance for the opening “O Fortuna,” familiar from countless commercials. The occasional rough edges fit the work’s text and aesthetic somewhat better than the usual homogeneous choral splendor, and the words were crystal clear. The relatively intimacy of the O’Neill ensured that the expressiveness of this popular work was aimed laser-like at the audience, and hit right between the eyes.

Artistic director James K. Bass’s authoritative, firm conducting highlighted the piece’s simplicity and directness. He was in control throughout, maintaining an inexorable momentum from start to finish.

I didn’t miss the orchestra. Na-Young M. Shin, the Camerata’s usual accompanist, and Timothy Durkovic, a familiar figure on the Southern California concert scene, are both virtuoso artists, and they covered the piano parts with fire and technical ability to spare. The original relies mainly on the percussion for its effectiveness, and here six players, several from the Long Beach Symphony, supplied all the booming, banging and crashing one could ask for.

Bass has only been at the helm since September, so we have a small sample size, but I sense that he has very high standards for soloists. The comic byplay of tenor Patrick Muehleise’s roasted swan and histrionics displayed by baritone Lee Poulis’s drunken abbot, not to mention soprano Oriana Falla’s stunning red dress, didn’t distract from some extraordinarily spectacular vocalism. Muelheise’s high tenor was perfect for the part, Poulis more sonorous and expressive than the usual, and Falla scaled the insane heights of “Dulcissime” with ease while supplying a meltingly lovely “In trutina.”

The Long Beach Youth Chorus made a good showing in their brief contributions, lacking only the bite of an all-boys group’s timbre.

Big things lie ahead for the Camerata; they’re singing Beethoven’s Ninth with the symphony next season. Judging from this “Carmina Burana,” they should be well up to the task.

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