Carmina Burana started as a collection of more than 200 poems and texts from the 11th and 12th century.
Written in Latin and an early form of German, the poems are often raucous, but without resorting to smut. The pieces, found in 1803 in a Bavarian Benedictine monastery, are considered to be the most important collection of early vagabond poems.
In 1936, German composer Carl Orff set 24 of these poems to music as a scenic cantata. He described them as “secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.”
This was the major work performed by the Okanagan Symphony Orchestra (OSO) for its season closing concert Sunday, May 8 at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre, and it was stunning.
However well we might know Carmina Burana by listening to a recording, hearing it live with a large orchestra and a chorus of 180 voices is beyond comparison.
The sections cover a wide range of the human condition: the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of spring, and the pleasures (and perils) of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.
Orff had planned it as a staged piece, with set and costumes, and much of the textual structure is based on the concept of the revolving fortune wheel.
Within the scenes, the wheel turns: joy becomes bitterness and hope becomes grief. Known as O Fortuna, the first poem completes this circle, forming a structure for the work by being both the opening and closing movements.
This opening item is the one most commonly known, and is often used in movies to denote primal forces, such as in Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
From the first unforgettable timpani strike, we heard 60 minutes of the most dramatic music imaginable.
It would be foolish of me to attempt to describe Carmina Burana, but I can tell you I came away with vivid impressions over a massive dynamic range: harsh, brooding, mysterious, majestic, sunny, graceful, warm, gentle, energetic, sad, angry, triumphant, and ultimately leading to love. The scoring calls for meticulous timing with constantly varying rhythms and with breathtaking orchestral punctuations.
The Okanagan Symphony Chorus (80 members, adult), who rehearsed the piece since the fall, and the Okanagan Symphony Youth Chorus (100 members), who rehearsed it from January, sung in Latin and German. Some singers had even learned the whole thing by heart.
The 24th section is a celebration, which segues directly into an exact repeat of the opening section. Besides giving us an encore, it book-ended the piece brilliantly.
Orff was so pleased with his composition that he told his publisher to delete all his previous work from the catalogue.
While originally intended as a staged work, Carmina Burana is now almost always performed as a concert piece. But a dance version was choreographed in 1978 for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, in collaboration with Orff himself.
In the first part of the evening, lead violinist Denis Letourneau was recognized on the occasion of his retirement after 39 years as concertmaster with the Okanagan Symphony. In honour of this, he was joined by his son, tenor Nathan Letourneau, visiting from New York, to sing Sergei Rachmaninov’s O, Cease thy Singing, Maiden Fair.
Nathan also sang the tenor part for Carmina Burana, demonstrating considerable comedic talent during the tavern section, in which he sang of the perils of being a swan, and now being eaten. Alongside him, baritone James Westman and soprano Caitlin Wood completed the solo lineup.
Rosemary Thomson, now at the end of her ninth year as musical director and conductor with the OSO, not only achieved a musical high with this piece, she played to a completely sold-out crowd.
– Jim Elderton is a local filmmaker and freelance writer who reviews the Okanagan Symphony season for The Morning Star.