TAMPA — Carmina Burana is like a musical Big Mac: Maybe not so good for you but an awful lot of fun. Carol Orff's "scenic cantata" is also the closest thing classical music has to box-office gold, and Friday night it drew the best turnout the Florida Orchestra has enjoyed in Tampa in quite a while for its season-opening masterworks concert at Morsani Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The orchestra's newly lowered ticket prices also probably had something to do with the robust attendance.
And the stage was full, with about 200 singers in the chorus from the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, the USF Chamber Singers and the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus overflowing into the wings.
The German guest conductor was Markus Huber, who began his program (after the obligatory Star-Spangled Banner) with the overture to Mozart's opera The Abduction from the Seraglio and Haydn's Symphony No. 100, Military. These mainstays of the late 18th century classical repertoire served as a kind of technical palate cleanser for the orchestra musicians, who came together again this week for the first time in four months.
The Haydn symphony was especially appropriate with its "military" percussion — triangle, cymbals and bass drum, with a burst of timpani in the finale — as a warm up for the main event. Carmina Burana is loaded with hard-driving rhythm from the percussion (including two pianos).
Nothing matches O fortuna, the opening chorus that hits you like the heavens opening up. Orff was very skillful in borrowing from his betters — Bach, Wagner and Stravinsky, among others — to set a text of 13th century Latin poems on wine, women and song. Its ersatz medieval sound has been appropriated by everything from Hollywood soundtracks to death metal rock.
Huber is from Munich, also Orff's hometown, and the conductor brought a practiced theatricality to Friday's performance. The operatic singing of baritone soloist Weston Hurt was particularly effective, and he got some laughs during the drunken tavern scene, seeming to stumble into the cellos.
Tenor Noel Espiritu Velasco has the punishingly high roasted swan aria down pat; he also sang it in the orchestra's 2000 performance of the cantata. Soprano Martha Guth was a bit tentative in her first number with children's chorus, but her In trutina was luminous. The enormous chorus, prepared by James Bass, music director of the Master Chorale, was the star of the evening.
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes or (727) 893-8716.