Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” gets top billing at this week’s Minnesota Orchestra concerts, but the real highlight is Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”

The season finale is a choral spectacular, featuring the Minnesota Chorale.

Stravinsky was commissioned to compose this setting of three Latin Psalms in 1930, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. It grew out of his return, four years earlier at age 44, to the Russian Orthodox Church of his childhood.

This is a somber masterpiece. (Even an “Alleluiah” is subdued rather than joyous.) He created a dark aural palette by eliminating violins, violas and clarinets from the ensemble.

Conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier’s performance was a bit off. His reading was dry and perfunctory, lacking the expression of faith that Stravinsky had intended.

The Minnesota Chorale easily handled the complex music. They imbued it with a depth of feeling that was otherwise lacking.

The concert’s opening work, “Now We Start the Great Round,” by St. Paul native Steve Heitzeg, also has the feel of a religious work, but one that celebrates at the temple of music. Commissioned to commemorate Orchestra Hall, it was last heard in the final concerts before the renovation. A revised ending was all the more powerful.

“Carmina Burana” is popular, in no small measure, because it is loud. It’s a showpiece, the massive orchestral, vocal and choral forces creating spectacular effects. But it truly is full of sound and fury signifying very little.

Using a collection of secular poems from the 11th and 12th centuries, Orff created a libretto for a dramatic cantata that is in turn erotic and domestic, joyful and bitter.

The composition is not subtle, and the chorale captured the music’s robustness. They sang with theatrical effect, like in the familiar opening, a half-whispered, staccato invocation of Fortune, bursting into a stunning fortissimo. They maintained a clarion sound, even at extremes of range or dynamics.

Of the soloists, baritone Stephen Powell had the most to do and delivered the most sonorous and nuanced performance.

Tortelier bounced about the podium, whipping the forces into a frequent frenzy. But he was also capable of creating a chant-like austerity. Even so, the performance was missing a degree of sensuousness that the texts called for.


William Randall Beard writes about theater and music.