A colorful ‘Carmina Burana’

Written by Anne Ierardi

Anne Azéma and Joel Cohen of Boston Camerata. Photo by Simone Poltrionieri

Anne Azéma and Joel Cohen of Boston Camerata. Photo by Simone Poltrionieri

Imagine an orchestral pageant with 70 musicians, two dueling grand pianos, three soloists, 80 singers from the Chatham Chorale and the Cape Conservatory’s Children’s Chorus! Imagine a colorful “Carmina Burana” with Early Music vocals and instruments by the acclaimed Boston Camerata. Imagine something daring, wild, and even hilarious with Jung-Ho Pak and the Cape Symphony’s metamorphosis of “Carmina Burana” into a colorful spectacle of courtly drama, ribaldry and amazing sound. 

Jung-Ho Pak, artistic director and conductor of the Cape Symphony, described “Carmina Burana” as “the most recognizable piece of classical music that audiences don’t know where it came from.” We often hear “O Fortuna” in movies and television, as in “The Doors,” Oliver Stone’s biographical film of the American rock band, and in commercials like the Domino’s Pizza commercial that aired during the 2015 Super Bowl.

German composer Carl Orff lived from 1895 to 1982. Known for his pedagogical skills and teaching children to perform musically, he made an important discovery that led to his crowning masterpiece of “Carmina Burana.” In a bookstore he came upon a collection of medieval poems originally found in a monastic library in Bavaria in the early 19th century. “Carmina” is Latin for songs or poems, while “Burana” is the Latinized version of the German town Beuern, where the monastery was located.

The clerical student-monks wrote these poems as a way to amuse themselves and poke fun at the clerical establishment. In the late 1960s I became enchanted by a book “The Feast of Fools.” Written by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, the book invites the reader to a rebirth of imagination and festivity in our own times as inspired by the “feast of fools,” a day in medieval times when ordinary townsfolk reveled in mocking the rituals of church and court.

“Carmina Burana” features the elements of wine, women, song, gambling, and fate. Orff was intrigued with the notion of the Wheel of Fortune, using it as an organizing principle for the medieval texts. According to Thomas May, writer for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the text portrays “the innocence of nature…the social sphere of partying… and the amorous and bittersweet awakening of courtship. The wheel’s rotations — ceaselessly repeated, much like human desire — are cleverly echoed in the repeated melodic material and refrains…balancing the score’s vigorous exuberance with moments of introspective tranquility, inviting us to an understanding of pleasure and pain as opposites of the same coin.”

Jung-Ho described his interpretation of Carmina Burana as a “hybrid,” closer to the intent of the composer to be a “multi-media opera” with the soloists acting in character: “Alize Rozsnyai is a very talented soprano with incredible technique and a beautiful voice. She is new to our stage and open to playing this role in character with subtle yet also erotic expression. Gerrod Pagenkopf plays the role of a highly comedic countertenor. I decided to use a countertenor versus a regular tenor so the voicing would not sound so high or strained. Thomas Jones, a fun-loving rogue baritone, is always willing to take a risk with our audiences.”

He added, “We are delighted to have the Cape Cod Children’s Chorus, directed by John Yankee and a ‘feature performance’ of the Chatham Chorale, under the direction of Joseph Marchio.”

Boston Camerata Artistic Director Anne Azéma is currently on tour with “Carmina Burana.” Last week at the Théatre de la Ville in Paris, they performed the full version and received a standing ovation. From there they went to Treviso, Italy, also commanding a capacity audience with cheering crowds.

Azéma, a soprano, shares this about the upcoming Cape performance: “We will present a small selection from our larger program, to give the audience a taste of both the poetry and music of this most important medieval manuscript. The intersection with Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (composed in 1936) is poetic only. He didn’t recycle any of the medieval music and composed his piece afresh. We will also present some visuals, coming from the Carmina Burana manuscript as well as others from the same period; and share a few thoughts from stage, as we go along. For this performance we will have three singers, including Daniel Hershey, tenor, and Taylor Ward, bass-baritone; two plucked instruments, lauta and guitern, played by our director emeritus, baritone Joel Cohen; and a small hurdy gurdy.”

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