ArtsWatch Guest Post: Bruce Browne on Carmina Burana

By Bruce Browne

This is why choral directors insist on precise diction.

Perhaps the best known classical choral music theme – after the main choral theme in Beethoven’s Symphony #9 – is the “O Fortuna,” the first (and last) movement from Carlo Orff’s  ever-popular 1936 cantata Carmina Burana. It’s been adapted, edited, re-scored and sampled for dozens of movies, and previews. But there is so much more to Carmina than that.

The “Dying Swan” counter-tenor aria, the luscious soprano aria “Video,” the men’s drinking songs, the youth choruses — Orff used all the varied colors of his palette, and mixed them well. These solos have their demands. Even when the soloists can make them sound effortless, listeners should be aware of some of the more athletic challenges Orff presents the singers: the leap from A to high B by the soprano late in the work; the vocal demands on the baritone to flip from regular voice to falsetto; the desperate cries of the swan by the counter-tenor, which is really amazingly scored.

There’s more to Carl Orff, too. A composer active in part during the Third Reich, he skirted the constraints of that regime with somewhat more success than some of his German compatriot composers.

Orff managed to refabricate and resurrect the St. Mark Passion of J.S. Bach, for example, which has lost all but a few movements left from the Master. Orff also composed a counterpart to his most famous work, called Catulli Carmina, which shares rhythmic ideas with Carmina Burana and is fraught with the soap opera correspondence  of the two lovers Catullus and Lesbia. On the surface, the music from this and Carmina Burana are very similar.

The performances coming up on Sunday, April 22, by Oregon Repertory Singers, under the baton of Dr. Ethan Sperry promise to be equal parts of celebration, revelry, drinking songs, and sheer beauty.

Oregon Repertory Singers

The soloist who has the largest part in the work is baritone Erik Hundtoft, who sings with Portland Opera. Dr. Sperry describes him as “the perfect voice for this piece.” The soprano arias are to be sung by five different voices, among them, Debbie Benke, Marti Mendenhall, Solveig Nyberg, Erin Walker and Erin Steitz .

ORS will be performing the two-piano and percussion version preferred by many choral directors; leaner in texture, and easier to balance with the choir, it’s also frankly more economical. The pianists are Naomi LaViolette and Jeongmi Yoon.

Directors have dealt with Carmina’s libretto in varied ways, since some of those texts are known to be somewhat ribald, coming as they do from the poetry of 13th century traveling students and monks. We often opt NOT to print all of the translations, or to use words that are purposely “lost in translation,” or to seek out euphemisms. The ORS will not shrink from their duty to allow us to appreciate all of the text, as Orff set it some eight decades ago. Risque will not be risky in this performance.

And, if this weekend’s Orff lights your fire, then catch an alternative offering in May, as ISing performs the work May 4-6 at Bethel Congregational Church in Beaverton.

Traveling east of the Cascades? Take in the Bend Cascade Chorale staging the first Carmina Burana in the area for twelve years. Performances will be June 9 and 11 (the “birthday” of Fortuna, the goddess worshipped in our well-known first movement).

Whether heard in movie scores, commercials, or the concert stage, Carmina Burana has something for everyone. However or whenever you hear it, let’s call the whole thing Orff!

Dr. Bruce Browne led Portland State University’s choral programs to national prominence in his years (1978-2006) at the helm there. He also directed the Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties and has conducted innumerable choruses, workshops, and other choral programs around the world. 

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