Conductor Marin Alsop

Conductor Marin Alsop (Steve J. Sherman / Carnegie Hall / May 6, 2013)

To wrap up its subscription season, the Baltimore Symphony is performing one of those surefire works beloved by orchestra box offices everywhere, Carl Orff's earthy cantata "Carmina Burana."

In a nice move, music director Marin Alsop has balanced this overly familiar item with some relatively out-in-left-field fare -- percussion works by brilliant Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse and a pulsing orchestral showpiece by undervalued Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas.

All of this music has in common propulsive, exuberant rhythms, which made for quite a kinetic experience Thursday night at Strathmore.

The lasting appeal of "Carmina Burana" is easy to understand. There's a nifty little ear worm in nearly every section of the score, and lots of vibrant instrumental coloring to surround the outpourings of chorus and soloists.

You don't even have to know what those singers are going on about to feel the music's pull, but the medieval texts in Latin, German and French sure are fun -- poems about nature, sex, drinking, more sex, more drinking. (Too bad translations were not provided for the audience Thursday.)

Alsop knows how to get "Carmina Burana" spinning and sparking, as she demonstrated with the BSO in 2008. She did so again here. The conductor's tempos were vigorous, but never breathless, and phrasing was invariably sensitive; the work's lyrical side was allowed to emerge as tellingly as the grittier. 

The BSO articulated with admirable bite. One notable example was the way the brass, in "Were diu werit alle min," let loose rollicking, tightly meshed blasts. 

Baritone Brian Mulligan encountered a bit of strain in the highest reaches, but his singing was otherwise splendid -- a sexy account of "Omnia sol temperat"; a velvety falsetto for "Dies, nox et omnia." There was radiant singing from soprano Robin Johannsen, especially in "Stetit puella," and a valiant performance from tenor John Tessier in the treacherous Song of the Roasted Swan.

The crucial choral side of the performance proved less satisfying. The fact that amplification was considered necessary to boost the sound tells you a lot.

The ensemble was, on paper at least, the Morgan State University Choir, which, of course, should hardly need electronic enhancement. But with school being out, it was difficult to get the full complement together, from what I have been told.

Even after extra choristers were brought in, the sonic effect was deemed lacking. So on came the microphones -- unfortunate for all concerned. That said, the singers got the job done, often quite vibrantly.

The Peabody Children's Chorus sounded sweet in its brief (also amplified) contributions.  

On the first half of the concert, the BSO dug into the hypnotic rhythms and juicy instrumental colors of Revueltas' "Sensemaya," which Alsop shaped effectively.

The stage was turned over solely to the orchestra's terrific percussion section for Rouse's high-powered "Ku-Ka-Ilimoku" and "Ogoun Badagris," both delivered with an infectious drive.

The program will be repeated Friday through Sunday at the Meyheroff.