Music director Teddy Abrams brought his “Sacred and Profane” vision to life this morning at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts with a triumphant performance that featured an original piece from the versatile composer and fiddler Jeremy Kittel, with Lexington-based pop cellist Ben Sollee up front, and an unprecedented 380-singer choir for a thrilling rendition of Carl Orff’s earthy masterpiece “Carmina burana.” Abrams dedicated the first half of the show to the sacred, with a six-song series of orchestral and vocal pieces, ranging from Mozart’s “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and Caroline Shaw’s “Oculi mei,” both featuring the orchestra and parts of the larger choir, to a medieval dance from “Carmina burana” arranged by Abrams himself.
Abrams opened the show with American composer Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question,” with strings off-stage, harmonious and haunting, underscoring a seeking trumpet (from the pit, perhaps? It was difficult to tell) and wistful, anxious woodwinds from a quartet who were the only musicians lit on an otherwise-dark stage. My row-mate whispered to her companion, “where is the orchestra?” This departure from the usual opening, with the full ensemble on stage, is yet more evidence that Abrams isn’t afraid to shake things up behind the podium and catch the audience off-guard, calling us to pay closer attention.
Thomas Tallis’ Renaissance motet “Spem in alium,” composed for eight quintets (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), showcased members of the University of Louisville Collegiate Chorale and the Louisville Chamber Choir, under the direction of Kent Hatteberg, who wrangled the impressive number of singers who finally crowded the stage in the second half. This smaller ensemble gave a gracious and ethereal performance of Tallis’ simple prayer, sourced originally from the Book of Judith.
Kittel’s composition, “Big Fiddle,” provided a rousing, foot-stomping finale to the first half of the concert, with Kittel on violin and Sollee on cello leading the orchestra in a jubilant and hopeful Appalachian-inflected melody.
Then comes the profane. The second half of the concert, Orff’s iconic “Carmina burana,” pushed the boundaries of what’s physically possible on the Whitney Hall stage. The orchestra moved up right to the edge of the stage, and along with risers on each of the three walls, every spare corner was filled with singers from nine choirs, plus a children’s choir that filed in front of the stage for one number. The formidable vocal strength from the choir matched well the orchestra’s wall of sound in the opening movement, the well-known epic “O Fortuna,” a wailing, gnashing lament over the cruelty of fate. There are other movements to the “Carmina burana,” all featured significantly less frequently in action film trailers, but they are no less exciting.
“Carmina burana” takes the listener on a quite theatrical journey through pleasures both natural and worldly—a meadow in spring, which leads to thoughts of fertility and sex, to the tavern, where drinking and gambling and other wicked behaviors rule, and to the bedchamber for the winking “Court of Love.” Soloists Celena Shafer (soprano) and Hugh Russell (baritone) enjoy a delightfully wicked back-and-forth as would-be lovers, and tenor Javier Abreu gives a terrified performance as the “roasting swan,” one voice from the tavern scene that serves as a harbinger for the darker turns to come in the finale, which reprises the “O Fortuna” lament. This morning’s standing ovation felt spontaneous, not obligatory, with audience members leaping out of their seats after the final note to show their appreciation for Abrams, his impressive corps of musicians, and the epic-level community of singers who shared the stage.