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Orchestra builds a massive 'spectacle'

April 19, 2007|by KATE COLEMAN

This weekend the Maryland Symphony Orchestra will present the final concert of "A Season to Celebrate," its 25th season.

The party is going to be huge.

The MSO really wanted to have a spectacular finish, said Music Director and Conductor Elizabeth Schulze.

"And indeed it will be an incredible spectacle on stage," she said.

The program will open with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. Then, The Maryland Theatre stage will be filled - overflowing - with 70 MSO musicians, 100 members of Baltimore Choral Arts Society, 45 singers from Frederick (Md.) Children's Chorus, three soloists and Schulze for a performance of "Carmina Burana."

Composer Carl Orff based the cantata "Carmina Burana" on a collection of mostly secular 13th-century poems and songs discovered in a Benedictine abbey in Bavaria in 1803. Orff's selected poems touch on a few pursuits - drinking and luck - not usually associated with monks.

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But in planning what MSO Executive Director Andrew Kipe calls a "big undertaking," very little has been left to chance.

"We've been conceiving this for about two years," said Orchestra Manager Sharon Ahrens.

Bleachers for the 100-member Baltimore Choral Arts Society's symphonic chorus will be brought in Friday. The Frederick Children's Chorus will sing in the theater's lower box seats, and the orchestra, which will include expanded brass and woodwind sections - three flutes, three oboes, four clarinets, three bassoons, five horns, three trumpets, three trombones - will take up every bit of the stage. Four hands - two players on one piano - will perform the work's two-piano part, Kipe said. Special lighting will be arranged so Schulze can be seen conducting from the edge of the stage.

As carefully as the stage is being set, the guest artists were chosen.

The Baltimore Choral Arts Society has been singing for more than 40 seasons and has performed "Carmina Burana" on many occasions, said Tom Hall, who is celebrating 25 years as the organization's music director. He's conducted the Orff work "probably 20 times."

"It's a piece that everybody loves and can relate to. One of the things that makes it so enduring is that there are really wonderful, rhythmically charged energetic sections, as well as very peaceful, tranquil, calm and lovely sections. It runs the gamut of every musical emotion," he said.

Frederick Children's Chorus Artistic Director Judy DuBose has sung "Carmina Burana" a number of times and said there's really no thrill like doing this piece. "It's such a challenge."

The 45 10- to 17-year-old girls and boys who will perform - from memory - at The Maryland Theatre comprise about one third of the organization DuBose founded 22 years ago.

"They're really excited about it," she said.

Soprano soloist Julia Turner Cooke will make her MSO debut this weekend, but she's performed "Carmina Burana"before - as recently as last weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Her solo comes toward the end of the work. She said she views her character as "sort of a virginal young thing" who, after interplay with the baritone character, yields to his desires and to her own.

"I love the music," she said. "I just love it."

The Baltimore resident is pleased to be performing close to home. And she will be sharing the stage with a friend - tenor soloist Scott Williamson.

Williamson, who performed Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the MSO in 2002, conducted "Carmina" at Shepherd College that year as he wrapped up his three-year stint as director of choral and vocal activities there. He since has earned his doctor of musical arts degree and pursued an active professional performance schedule.

His "Carmina" role, one he's done a couple of times, is in the section titled, "In the Tavern."

Williamson portrays a roasting swan, singing in a range that's higher than normal, representing the pain of being burnt on a spit.

"I'm delighted to be working with Elizabeth again. She's a fantastic conductor and musician. It's an honor," he said.

Baritone soloist Alex Helsabeck never has performed with the MSO, but the U.S. Army Chorus member said colleagues have told him he's going to enjoy his experience.

Schulze said she heard Helsabeck sing the title role in the Mercersburg (Pa.) Area Community Chorus production of Felix Mendelssohn's "Elijah" last year.

"I realized this is the person who could do the many-voiced baritone part - the many-character baritone part," she said. "He just knocked my socks off."

Helsabeck learned that role when he performed it with the U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants. "It was quite an extraordinary piece of music for me to learn, because it's a baritone piece, but it stretches so far into the falsetto," he said.

He called composer Orff a "trickster," and the piece primal and transforming. "You can never sing 'Carmina' the same way twice."

That approach suits the image of fickle fortune in the powerful hymn that opens and closes the work.

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