Carl Orff's exuberant cantata "Carmina Burana" has pretty much held the public enthralled since its premiere in 1937. That the first audience happened to be in Nazi Germany gives some of us pause — eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin once referred to the piece as "the original 'Springtime for Hitler.'"
But the work's raw power — all those earthy medieval texts about fate, spring, booze and sex, set to reiterative, percussive music — is easy to understand, easy to embrace. No wonder parts of the score repeatedly turn up in movies and TV commercials. And Baltimore Symphony Orchestra programs.
This week, for the third time in eight years (most recently in 2013), the BSO offers "Carmina Burana," conducted by music director Marin Alsop. Joining in the performances are two steady, well-honed ensembles — the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and Peabody Children's Chorus — and three stylish vocal soloists.
Alsop was at her familiar best Thursday night at the Music Center at Strathmore, assuring an overall propulsive momentum but showing great rhythmic flexibility along the way. She brought out subtle dynamic contrasts (the pianissimo at the end of "Floret silva nobilis" was particularly beautiful) and many a subtle detail of instrumental coloring, as well.
The BSO responded expressively, if not always cleanly. Occasional smudges, especially in the horns during the "Chramer, gip die varwe mir" passage, startled the ear. But they were subsequently balanced out by spot-on brass work in "Were diu werlt alle min'" and gorgeous string playing during the score's lyrical moments.
Impressive clarity — with every consonant given its due — and a smooth, hearty tone characterized the Choral Arts contributions. In their brief appearance, the children's voices floated out sweetly.
The evening got a terrific lift from baritone Elliot Madore, whose honeyed timbre and delectable, spontaneous phrasing made every word register. His colorful singing would alone make a great reason to catch the remaining performances Friday and Saturday.
On Thursday, Madore reached quite a peak of tonal sexiness in "Omnia sol temperat" and "Dies, nox et omnia"; he proved equally effective articulating the ramblings of a drunken cleric in "Ego sum abbas."
There was also much to savor in soprano Anna Christy's solos, delivered with a warm, Italianate vibrancy of tone and expression. Tenor Matthew Plenk charged boldly into the song about a roasted swan. He got burned by some of the cruel high notes, but communicated the text vividly.
The concert opened with the world premiere of a BSO centennial commission, "Unsung" by Lori Laitman. The brief work spotlights several instruments, especially woodwinds, that don't always get a chance to shine. Their solos are cushioned by plush, dark string harmonies in what the composer describes as "a song without words."
It doesn't last quite long enough to make a rich impression, but it's a pretty, well-crafted score. Alsop led a smooth account of it.
This season, the BSO is putting an emphasis on the music of Igor Stravinsky, starting this week with his "Symphony in Three Movements." Written during World War II and widely considered a reaction to that consuming conflict, this craggy work has a restless, almost nail-biting energy.
Alsop's approach could have used even more tension and jolt, but her emphasis on structure paid off. She drew a tight response from the BSO, especially from the woodwinds; note, too, Lura Johnson's crisp playing of the pivotal piano part.
The concert repeats at 8 tonight and Saturdayat Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.