Almost anytime a particular scene calls for dramatic, downright scary music, Hollywood instinctively turns to the opening number, “O fortuna,” in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. As a result, even the least classically minded among us -- and viewers of everything from Glee to Survivor to Speed, and countless sporting events -- know the work by sound, if not by name.
But to hear the work live, and in full, is a special treat all its own. In performances this weekend at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, the National Symphony Orchestra may not fully honor German composer Orff’s wishes that his most famous composition be performed in a theater, as a theatrical piece. But as led by guest conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, the NSO certainly gets closer to it than you would naturally expect. The opening night performance on Thursday, Sept. 29, at least, was essentially as much of a theatrical show as it was a night at the symphony.
The NSO achieves its most dramatic rendering of the lively Carmina Burana chiefly by enlisting a stellar troupe of nearly 200 singers, performing the medieval poems about life, love, pleasure and especially pain that Orff included in the work. The esteemed 160-person Choral Arts Society of Washington is the real powerhouse of the performance, but the Children’s Chorus of Washington serves as sweet accompaniment. The stars of the show are three terrific opera singers, who embellish their great voices by acting out what they sing (in Latin, old German and old French). Soprano Laura Claycomb and baritone Hugh Russell are both stupendous, but it’s gay tenor Nicholas Phan who’s the true standout in a hilarious, all-too-brief role. Performing what is said to be one of the most difficult pieces in the tenor repertory, Phan sings the over-the-top part of a once pretty and lively bird, now about to be consumed at dinner. “Alas, poor me!” goes the English translation, as Phan wipes his brow, sighs with all his might and then finally slumps into his chair, lifeless. Oh, the drama of it all.
The NSO opened the show with Beethoven’s self-described “little Symphony,” Symphony No. 8. Clocking in at under 30 minutes, this spry, lighthearted work is most notable for the many musical jokes Beethoven included in it, with sudden, unexpected shifts in rhythm, tone or melody, and with various instrumentalists occasionally egging others on in a kind of teasing, call-and-response fashion. De Burgos did a fine job of keeping the orchestra tightly wound, and the piece was a perfect prelude to the dramatics that came later.
Oh fortune, indeed!
Remaining performances tonight, Friday, Sept. 30, and Saturday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m. Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Tickets are $20 to $85. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.