Love, Lust and Drinking Stir 'Carmina'
If I could only take one piece of music on a long trip, I might pick Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Its 25 tracks offer something for everyone — and a piece of music for every mood imaginable.
The subject matter covered in Carmina stays pretty basic: love, lust, the pleasures of drinking and the heightened moods evoked by springtime. These primitive and persistently relevant themes are nicely camouflaged by the Latin and old German texts, so the listener can actually feign ignorance while listening to virtually X-rated lyrics. (Veni Veni Venias! Come, come come now!)
The music itself toggles between huge forces and a single voice, juxtaposing majesty and intimacy with ease. At its largest, Carmina employs a chorus of 200 or more voices, an orchestra of 100 players and a children's choir of 50 or more, plus three soloists (soprano, tenor and baritone).
The music's style is equally inclusive, ranging from simple chant to almost rock-inspired rhythmic sections. The opening and closing tracks, both titled "O Fortuna," mirror each other: They begin with all forces at full throttle, then immediately scale back in an ominous warning repetition that builds to a climactic close. Between these bookends lies music of many diverse styles, with a hypnotic repetitive element, an intense purity of the solo soprano and the children's choir, a raucous quality to the all-male sections, and a humor underlying the lewd nature of the lyrics (which sound so erudite in Latin), all combining to create an immediacy and accessibility not found in many works.
Carmina Burana has enjoyed popularity and longevity, in large part due to its remarkable crossover ability: Excerpts have been widely used in movie trailers and television commercials throughout the world. Portions of the work are heard in films ranging from Excalibur to Natural Born Killers to Jackass.
That may not have been what Orff envisioned when he wrote Carmina Burana in 1936, but he did have much more than a straightforward musical experience in mind. He subtitled his exuberant hour-long oratorio "Cantiones profanae, cantoribus et choris cantandae, comitantibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis," or "Secular songs for singers and choruses accompanied by instruments and magical images" — hardly typical concert fare.
From a conductor's point of view, Carmina is an absolute blast — so many people, so many textures, so much variety. And, contrary to what conductors might tell you, when 300-plus performers are involved, size does matter.
In 2007, Marin Alsop will become music director of the Baltimore Symphony, making her the first woman to head a major American orchestra. She was named a 2005 MacArthur Fellow, the first conductor ever to receive the award.
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