‘Carmina Burana’: College Party Scene for Primitive Times

If the Pittsburgh Symphony were to present a show of orchestrated songs by popular pop and rock bands big in colleges today, they would really be quite similar to Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.”

Times have changed, but the appeal and love for partying, specifically in the college scene has not changed from when these works were written until the present day. It is easy to get caught up in the ecstatic and gentle poetic music, but not have a clue what is being sung—what the texts are all about. Yet, in the audiences favor, the English texts were provided both on screens in the hall and in the program. The texts were very surprising and exaggerated—not religious or spiritual in the least despite most of the songs being in Latin. On the contrary, a majority of the texts contain themes of sexuality, violence and drunkenness, etc. The songs have much clerical influence, but certainly more body than was allowed in the church.

Even though the opening chorus, O Fortuna is the most famous part, (everybody knows it, even if they do not know what it is) it is not the most beautiful—there are way more exciting parts throughout the entire piece. The opening however, is just the introduction to Orff’s “Songs of Beuren.” The work rapidly shifts to a collection of secular songs that ex-monk turned poets, clerics and ex-abbots wrote centuries ago from the world they had just come from — largely in the 13th century. The satirical text of Carmina Burana is a curious compilation created by Orff.

Orff’s Carmina Burana is the Wheel of Fortune (hence, O Fortuna, or Oh Fortune) going around and around in the beginning—you can be at the top one moment, then all the way down, then at the bottom, but then rising again illustrating how life goes with all its possibilities. The music is very mysterious, especially with its entrances of O Fortuna—which repeats at the end too like a palindrome, once again reinstating the sense of the spinning Wheel of Fortune.

The climax of the night was not one element of Orff’s Carmina Burana, rather how Honeck shaped the work and how the performers responded. Maestro Honeck had the task of guiding a choir, a symphony orchestra and three solo singers. Honeck is incredibly faithful to the score with such attention to detail, yet within that framework, he made certain that even a repeated phrase had their own flavor or (emotional) tone. Through Honeck and the other performers we understand the concepts, as if a wave of sound and wisdom washed over the audience. There were times in the Orff that just with the sonority of the chords it literally felt like wind on my face and that I was being lifted up, and that was something magical. It was mind blowing. The famous opening sung by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh was executed with such conviction that it felt like the roof of Heinz Hall would lift off with the force of their voices. The chorus really owns the piece. The three soloists at the front each had their moments to shine. It was worth the wait to hear soprano, Lisette Oropesa’s breathtakingly pure, beautiful rendition of Setit Puella (A Girl Stood) while baritone Hugh Russell showed immense and overwhelming power in his solo Ego Sum Abbas (I am the Abbott). Russell captivates for sure. Carmina Burana is a great fit for him (or rather he fits Carmina) vocally, and character-wise. Russell’s role is incredibly demanding theatrically. He has to change roles so rapidly—a young poet who is down on his luck, to the angry drunk, to the fun drunk, back to the poet and all the in between. And vocally, the range Russell showcased is all over the map. I definitely need to add some Hugh Russell CDs to my collection.

A very dramatic work, Carmina Burana benefits from such a strong presence as Russell offered. Counter-Tenor Andrey Nemzer sang a witty Cignus Ustus Cantat (The Roast Swan) where a swan sings about how he has ended up about to be served on a table. Combine those elements with the college humor of today, dances, love songs and the satire of Orff’s Carmina, and an unlikely intriguing show is created, showing that times may have changed, but college students and the general pursuit of materialistic/fleshly desires have not.

Once again the PSO, Maestro Honeck and The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh presented a show par excellence that certainly gave Carmina Burana the fiery passion it deserved – an immense evening on a seriously large scale.

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Oct 9