Sooner or later Gustavo Dudamel was going conduct "Carmina Burana," and probably at the Hollywood Bowl. And so Tuesday night that came to pass in Cahuenga Pass. It was a near perfect, which means near impossible, night for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale at the Bowl.
Dudamel's "Carmina Burana" was great for the simple reason that it offered animated music making. It was great for the not simple reason that the performance, while irresistibly enthusiastic, proved trustworthy. And it was great because the Bowl actually worked as it is supposed to, as a site able to enhance, not distract from, conveying rich musical meaning.
Carl Orff's hourlong choral piece is regularly called the most popular concert work of the 20th century, although I've never seen actual evidence of that. A lot else is up for question. Just how complicit was Orff with the Nazis? He claimed to work for the underground, but there hasn't been entirely credible evidence of that, either. How much, if any, of the so-called medieval Latin poetry of the collection "Carmina Burana" is the real thing?
What might be easier to prove is that "Carmina Burana" is the most popular popular piece that critics and sophisticates love to diss. In Jonathan Cott's "Dinner With Lenny," Leonard Bernstein described Orff in "Carmina Burana" as taking "nine-tenths of the style from Stravinsky's 'Les Noces' and the tenth from Israeli horas." Yet many have noted Bernstein took maybe a tenth of his style in "Chichester Psalms" from "Carmina Burana."
And what has long been obvious is that "Carmina Burana" is catnip for conductors. Audiences adore it. Music lovers of all persuasions make their peace with the piece. Its 1937 premiere was such a success that the National Socialists were willing to overlook "decadent" Stravinsky rhythms and sexually explicit texts so that "Carmina Burana" could serve as a Nazi anthem.
But not only did Nazi greats, such as Herbert von Karajan, embrace it. Jews, gays and blacks have regularly performed and recorded it (Bernstein being the rare holdout). Even the occasional modernist, such as Esa-Pekka Salonen, has broken down and done it (is that a trace of "Carmina Burana" in Salonen's latest big choral work, "Karawane," which the L.A. Phil will perform in the fall?).
Orff's motive, however, was the relatively innocent urge to give modern voice to ancient poetry and culture, and that is mostly how it is now accepted. And Dudamel's approach was to give Orffian sentiment, notably the bursting of spring with its vivid temptations of drink and lovemaking, such immediacy that there were occasional whoops from the large crowd. How often does that happen at classical concerts?
Conducting from memory, he showed exquisite sensitivity to text and to Orff's magical instrumental textures. No one handles pomp better than Dudamel, so that side of "Carmina Burana" was fabulous.
But Dudamel also demonstrated conscientious restraint. One can hear in a recording of "Carmina Burana" made before the Nazis got their grandiose hands on it, and on a new one conducted by Jos van Immerseel that uses period prewar instruments, a neoclassical restraint that Dudamel expertly reproduced.
Best of all, this was a site-specific performance. Cameras captured Dudamel's facial expressions as manifestations of text as well as their ability to enliven musical phrase. You could witness how the solo singers and the chorus responded with their own dramatic alertness.
Amplification functioned this time as a magnificent tool to enhance the tone and quality of singers. Soprano Joélle Harvey gorgeously floated limpid high notes; baritone Brian Mulligan remained poised, not getting carried away with drunken buffoonery; tenor Lawrence Brownlee sang the song of the swan roasting over the fire with furious anguish tinged by irony.
You could see as well as hear how the Master Chorale made every word matter. The National Children's Chorus didn't make every word matter, only every note, and that was as it should be. Another thing Orff gets away with in "Carmina Burana" is that Orff brings the kids in to sing about sex.
It can take picnickers time to settle down, and that too was taken into consideration. The first half of the concert was essentially a warm-up with a short video tribute to Dudamel, who made his U.S. debut conducting the L.A. Phil at the Bowl 10 years ago, and two accessible short pieces by Eric Whitacre — "Her Sacred Spirit Soars" for chorus and "Equus" for orchestra — that would not overshadow "Carmina Burana."
In town for two weeks at the Bowl, Dudamel repeats the "Carmina Burana" program Thursday, conducts the Tchaikovsky Spectacular over the weekend and then leads programs devoted to Mendelssohn and Mozart next week — unusually avoiding this summer the three Bs or any composer whose name begins with a letter that comes before M in the alphabet.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts 'Carmina Burana'
Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: 8 p.m. Thursday