Ready to Bloom 

Orff's 'Carmina Burana' is the perfect music for springtime

Orff's 'Carmina Burana' is the perfect music for springtime

Nashville Symphony

8 p.m. Apr. 7-8

TPAC’s Jackson Hall

For tickets, call 255-ARTS

Geoffrey Chaucer famously identified April as the month when people get juiced up with spring fever. Signs thereof are all around us. Even after a not very wintry winter, the crisp clear days and the outbursting blossoms make swarms of folks get out their trowels and start digging. As e.e. cummings less famously said, ”Nothing is as beautiful as spring.“

And it’s hard to imagine a better piece of music with which to bring in spring than Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. This weekend the Nashville Symphony and Symphony Chorus, with three guest soloists, are performing Orff’s 1937 setting of some two dozen emphatically secular medieval lyrics. Most are in Latin, three are in medieval German, and one is in a mixture of Latin and French. In the Latin title, ”Carmina“ just means ”songs,“ and ”Burana“ denotes the Bavarian monastery where the manuscript was found. Scholars think the poems were probably written by early hippie students moving from one university to another and/or by defrocked priests. Whoever wrote them celebrates the pagan urgencies of drinking and lustful conjugation in defiance of conventional pieties. And though the text that begins and ends the music says that human existence is governed by mere chance, and ends with the line ”Everybody weep with me,“ this music never weeps. It is everywhere vibrant and exuberant.

Carmina is wonderfully paradoxical. The composer, Carl Orff (1895-1982), was a devout Catholic and better regarded as an educator than as a composer. He wrote a good quantity of music, and scholars speak well of much of it. But only Carmina has found a secure place in the repertory. In setting these songs, the devout pedagogue devised a harmonically and melodically simple, viscerally and energetically percussive music to express boisterous pagan joy.

The music is scored for orchestra, chorus, and soprano, tenor, and bass soloists. It begins and ends with the same powerful chorus, addressed to Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi—Fortune, Empress of the World. Between this opening and closing, the music divides into three sections: ”Springtime,“ ”In the Tavern,“ and ”The Court of Love.“

In the first section, the singers praise the beauties of burgeoning spring and announce their hunger for love. In one chorus, young women sing, ”Look at me, young men! Let me please you!“ The middle section, ”In the Tavern,“ sharpens the sardonic humor. In the first tavern song, the bass soloist laments the emptiness of life for poor mortals and concludes that he is ”eager for the pleasures of the flesh more than for salvation.“ This is followed by a mordant tenor, the solo voice of a roasting swan remembering how beautiful he was before he was spitted over the fire. But even this bizarre metaphor is funny rather than frightening. The middle section concludes with a chorus of rowdy men singing ”When We Are in the Tavern.“ The longest song in the collection, this one will remind some listeners of stein-bangings they have been part of.

The final section, ”The Court of Love,“ contains the loveliest songs, though the urgencies of eros have not abated. The most lyrical moments are given to the soprano soloist. She sings first of a radiant girl with a ”mouth in bloom“ who ”stood like a little rose.“ And then, after a couple marvelous choruses, she sings as perhaps that same girl, wavering between giving herself to her lover and not. Her final line is, ”I yield to the sweet yoke.“ This section concludes with a throbbing hymn to Venus as ”light of the world“ and ”rose of the world.“ Then Fortune’s wheel turns full circle as the opening chorus is reprised.

This is wonderful, stirring stuff, in which words of lamentation are belied by the music’s resonant vitality. Orff himself confesses to great admiration for Stravinsky, and affinities can be heard with, for instance, Rite of Spring. But they are rhythmic rather than melodic or harmonic. The tunes, however ingenious, are simple and singable—though often at the very top edge of the vocal range. The harmonies are never contrapuntal; they are always chordal percussive elements. And forward-thrusting driving energy is the élan vital of Carmina Burana.

The evening’s three young soloists are already drawing kudos around the world. Soprano Janine Thames last year sang the title role in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor with the Fort Worth Opera, a role that makes great demands on coloratura virtuosity. Tenor John Daniecki has recorded Carmina with the San Francisco Symphony on the London label. And bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, a Kentucky native, has sung Mercutio in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette with Baltimore Opera, Papageno in The Magic Flute with Washington Opera, and the title role in The Marriage of Figaro with the New York City Opera Company. These singers should be prepared to sing.

And so too should the Symphony Chorus, if the track record of its director, George Mabry, is anything to go by. At 7 p.m. before each performance this weekend, Mabry will be the featured guest at a ”Classical Conversation,“ hosted by Larry Adams in Jackson Hall. He’ll talk about the music before his chorus sings it.

An evening of Carmina Burana alone would be worth standing in line for. But this evening will also include the Bronx-born pianist Terrence Wilson as soloist in Samuel Barber’s only Piano Concerto, composed in 1962. Just 24, Wilson has already been performing for eight years. In 1992, he made his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra performing the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1.

Liszt always demands spectacular technique, and in his own way, Barber does too. The latter composer is doubtless best known for his Adagio for Strings, showing off his trademark long, lyrical lines and wonderful sense of color and timbre. The first two movements of the Piano Concerto—for which he was awarded his second Pulitzer Prize—bear this stamp. But the finale is a ravishingly bravura piece. Jeff Berger, the soloist at the 1962 premiere, says Barber wanted it to go twice as fast as it does, and only when Vladimir Horowitz argued it couldn’t be played that fast did the composer relent. Even so, it remains pyrotechnical.

These two compositions go together well. The concerto is more lyrical than percussive; Carmina is the contrary. Both are Romantic in substance and conception, quite contemporary in color and execution. The concerto has been compared with Prokofiev, the Carmina with Stravinsky. But of these two, Carmina Burana is the more throbbingly alive. All the ills Dame Fortune is able to lay on these singers cannot quash their vitality. The energy behind those voices is blossoming now all over Music City.


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