Saturday, April 21, 2007

About town -- Carmina Burana

It was a packed house at the Alberta Bair tonight for the final concert of the season. The Billings Symphony and Chorale performed Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, a work that is so big, raucous, and deeply textured that it can perhaps only be truly appreciated in a live performance.

While Montana Headlines has had some moments of dissatisfaction with the lighter fare and sometimes less than polished performances that music director Anne Harrigan has had during her two-year tenure with the Billings Symphony, tonight was not one of those nights.

The first half of the program was dominated by Paul Hindemith's "Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber," a piece that in some circumstances would have been an appropriately spectacular finish to a concert. It was hard for the thought not to cross one's mind that the Orff would be a bit of a let-down.

Hardly. This was one of those nights when one is reminded of just how much talent there really is in the Billings Symphony -- some local, some drawn from Bozeman (such as principal flutist Sue Makeever, whose solo work in the Hindemith was its usual perfection) and elsewhere in the region.

The most famous part of Carmina Burana is the opening "O Fortuna," but reducing it to that one "greatest hit" does injustice to the work as a whole, which combines irreverent medieval Latin lyrics with Orff's modern yet accessible music.

One sad note: this was Chorale Director David Barnett's last concert. While Harrigan has perhaps used more choral works during her tenure than some patrons would prefer, since these are often bigger productions that displace more ambitious purely symphonic programs -- knowing that this was Barnett's last season and concert brings those choices more into focus.

Chorale directors are typically unsung heroes, since they spend countless hours rehearsing the vocal music that will be featured, only to stand in the shadows on concert night while the orchestral conductor takes the spotlight, conducting the entire performance. Barnett's quiet professionalism has been a gift to the Billings musical community, and he will be missed by symphony patrons.

A problem that the Billings Symphony is eventually going to have to address is the fact that it just isn't the same to have a music director who doesn't live and work year-round in the community. Harrigan is a fine conductor, and she has brought new life and filled the seats in a way that hadn't been the case for some years as the Billings Symphony has struggled to compete for attendance with an ever-growing schedule of other performances at the Alberta Bair.

But in spite of what she has accomplished in such a short time, there is still a palpable difference between the experience now and what we had when previous conductor Uri Barnea lived and worked in Billings -- or between what we have and what Bozeman has with the outstanding Matthew Savery. This, in spite of the fact that the pool of players available to the Billings Symphony is deeper and more talented, and the performance hall far more capable of providing the aural experience of a symphony performance.

A symphony is the backbone of a city's musical life, and as such, needs attentive direction from someone who thinks of that city as, well, home. Call this yet another appeal for developing and preserving a local economy.

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