Pillbox

Page presents his final performance

Never before has a passage of music sounded more like a sexual climax than in Carnegie Mellon alumna Elisabeth Turchi’s magnificent rendition of “Dulcissime,” a movement of Carl Orff’s famous classical “scenic cantata” Carmina Burana. And what better way than through great primal passion — and through one of the most famous classical pieces of all time — to celebrate the final concert of Robert Page, the venerated maestro and director of choral studies at Carnegie Mellon.

His exit marks a turning point for the College of Fine Arts. Page is indubitably one of the greatest choral conductors of our time, and can be credited significantly for shaping the world-renowned voice department at the School of Music. Carmina Burana is one of his signature pieces: He won a Grammy for his recording of Carmina with the Cleveland Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas, and conducted the piece with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in 1997.

The joint Carnegie Mellon choirs, the Carnegie Mellon Percussion Ensemble, School of Music faculty pianists Luz Manriquez and Mark Carver, and featured soloists including Turchi (CFA ’99) presented the piece to a packed house at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) on Saturday, with a repeat performance yesterday at St. John Vianney Church in South Hills. The two other alumni soloists were tenor Dillon McCartney (CFA ’92) and baritone Dimitrie Lazich.

Carmina Burana — especially the movement that serves as its beginning and end, “O Fortuna” — is practically a stereotype for heightened drama, having been used as incidental music for Gatorade commercials, the BBC’s World Cup coverage, and Pittsburgh Pirates games. This energy reflects the piece’s text, which journeys from philosophical ruminations on wealth to great raucous numbers about drinking, gambling, and sex. This drama, coupled with Page’s characteristic chutzpah, made for a passionate night.

This passion took a few different forms over the course of Saturday night. It was certainly contagious in the choir, and one could easily pick out singers head-banging during movements with driving beats. But as junior composition student and back-row head-banger Sean Salamon astutely observed, “How can you not rock out to Carmina Burana?”

Considering that the student singers had only a month to prepare — and that the soloists didn’t rehearse with the choir until two days before the show — they did an incredible job. Page elicited spitting diction and an enormous vocal force for all the choral movements of the piece, especially from the men. Most impressive of all were the short solos from certain chorus members.

It’s rather unfortunate that the School of Music didn’t have the resources to perform the full-scale version of the work. What would have been moments to highlight a large ensemble in the full version of Carmina came off as dry and flat in this arrangement.

That is to say, the arrangement was entirely at fault. The Carnegie Mellon Percussion Ensemble, a conglomerate of undergraduate and graduate percussion performance majors, subtly showcased some of the best talent of the night, managing to accentuate the piece’s drama without stealing the spotlight from the singers. Master’s student in percussion performance Lily Hoi, in particular, radiated more intensity than nearly anyone else onstage. Also commendable were Manriquez and Carver, both master pianists by their own right who came together under Page’s baton to celebrate his last concert.

Although Carl Orff wrote Carmina primarily for the chorus, many of his vocal parts sit in an uncomfortably high range in the human voice. Turchi mastered this range the moment she stood from her chair. The piece’s single tenor solo depicts a stumbling drunk singing in a stratospheric wail. He acted out the part of the drunk by frequently breaking the fourth wall, once even looking at the score over Page’s shoulder (the maestro turned to him, apparently aghast). The tenor’s acting more than made up for the slight weakness in his voice.

Lazich had a sonorous and luscious voice in his lower range, but his part goes rather high as well. There were some points in the performances when one was worried he wouldn’t make all his notes, and the tension he exuded in the upper register of his voice was unnerving. He also had a tendency to slide from one note to another — a practical rather than a stylistic choice — which was largely a turnoff. He also acted out his part, but after the tenor’s solo, his movements seemed like a cheap imitation of McCartney’s.

The soloists aside, the last few movements of the cantata were riveting. During the reprise of “O Fortuna,” Page — usually hunched over like a noble crow — seemed to grow a head taller. The audience saw, for at least a minute, the great conductor as a spry young man. His heart and music have never grown stiff with age.